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Tree


He tells me a story about his life under Pol Pot. I imagine palm trees and the hot, humid weather. I imagine the fear. He’s in his fifties but I think he’s thirty-something. His face is at peace and smooth of Western worry. His eyes are warm and do not haunt. Treks have kept him fit. His body is lithe and free of indulgence – he eats just enough to survive. He is here with us. Standing like his name, like a tree, straight and quiet.

He tells us: They came to our village and lined us up.

We sit around him, a group of trekkers, silent, listening to him. We look up to him, like school children would to a teacher.

He tells us: They tied our hands with rope. My mother, my father, my brother, me and the rest of our village all lined up in a row. I am small so I am at the back. I am blindfolded so I cannot see anything but I hear the sounds of chopping. A deep thwack and a stifled scream. Then I hear the whimpering of those in front of me as they await their fate. I am only ten but I know death when I hear it.

We sit silent and still. Fear has gripped us. His nightmare, still so clear in his mind, is now in our mind. We share his fear. He shares his soul.

He tells us: My blindfold is loose and I can see a little out of it. I turn my head up to see men hitting their machetes into people’s heads. Sometimes they hit them a number of times before they fall. I hear the falling bodies. I let the blindfold cover my eyes again as I don’t want to see anymore.

He tells us: I have never been so afraid. I am small and so afraid. I feel them coming closer and I hear the sound of my mother, father and brother dying. I don’t look at them. I can’t see them but I hear them dying. I feel the men come closer. I feel the rope go slack around my wrists.

We don’t know how he’s standing in front of us, like a tree, unmoved by his horror. Imagining his fear is almost too much for us.

He tells us: The rope goes slack and I quickly look out of the gap in my blindfold. The men are distracted and my legs run towards the jungle. It is not far and it is thick. I run into the jungle and hide. I hear them yelling and running after me. I find a spot, well hidden and don’t move. They search for me until dark. I remain frozen under a tree. Frozen by fear and frozen by the fact I have escaped death when my family did not. I am alone.

We look at this man who is not defined by his fear. His name is fitting. Like a tree, he is strong. He is probably the strongest man I know even though he’s barely five foot four and weighs less than me, less than a woman.

He tells us: I spent a year in the jungle. Eating and living off the jungle. It was my friend and it was my enemy. Then the Vietnamese army captured me and I fight with them. I try to escape but it was hard so I stay with them. I saw America bomb Vietnam and Cambodia and I saw lots of land mines. Sometimes up close. Sometimes after someone’s leg had been blown off.

He shows us a scar from a land mine. It is a river etched into his skin, deepened with time flowing through him like a beautiful tattoo. It is smooth and holds no hurt or anger. Like Tree, his skin has showed defiance over tragedy to tell us it is only temporary and all things can heal in their own way.

Tastes like chicken


This is a story of vomit.  Like a regurgitated chicken burger, it had to come up.  In Lima, Peru.  We had come to the end of what was an amazing trek through the Andes.  We saw stones of ages gone, made friends from all over the world and was healed by fresh mountain water.  We ate local, drank local and Did Not Get Sick.

So the chicken burger was a surprise. Last treat, we said. Let’s go Western, we said. In Lima.  Husband, a fan of artery clogging food, guided us toward KFC.  Previous experience living in South East Asia led us to believe KFC was as safe as a Thai family of six on a motorcycle. Mostly safe.  So I ate the burger and it tasted like chicken. Sort of.

It was strange chicken.  Odd chicken.   The kind you’d expect if you were eating in Lima, so I think ‘this is how Lima chicken tastes.’ Kind of like chicken but not. Same same but different.  Maybe too different as I didn’t finish the burger.

2am and the sudden vomiting began.  I’ll spare the details but this chicken burger wanted out of my body any way it could. Who knew food could be so violent?

7am. International flight to Australia with a stop-over in Johannesburg. 29 hours flying and one chicken burger that wanted to take the entire lining of my stomach on a tour of the Malaysian Airways airplane toilet.

I sat in-between husband and an 18-year old South African professional polo player who had knocked mallets with Prince William – more than once. Mummy and Daddy knew people.  I had no idea you could make a living playing polo nor did I understand why anyone would want to. He told me Daddy dealt in rough-cut diamonds. He was young so I forgave him for sounding so bourgeois. He tried to tell me more when the second wave of vomit began.

I turned from polo-boy to husband and promptly vomited into the first plastic bag I could find.  I vomited into the bag over husband’s lap.  There was a bit of spillage.  Husband was surprisingly kind and helped me double bag. Calmly he asked why I vomited on his lap and not my own.  I told him that I was being polite vomiting away from polo-boy.  He was remarkably understanding and it was at that moment, with vomit-tinged hair, I thought this is why I loved him most.

I turned back to polo-boy who had clearly never encountered vomit-on-a-plane and no longer wanted to share white bourgeois South African stories with me.  The smell of vomit wafted in between the three of us.  There was no escape and there was not much to do but ride out the trip.  Polo-boy was too polite to ask to be moved. He got off at Johannesburg and didn’t say goodbye.

I made the trip home and it took two weeks until my stomach returned to normal. I suspected it was salmonella poisoning but if it tastes like chicken, then how are you supposed to know?

© running with the beagle 2010

Occupational hazard


The shadow sighed and shook its leg away from its body. ‘What the fuck?!’ it mumbled.

A female voice rang out across the flat of the lake. ‘Mind your language, Jimmy.’

The afternoon light was dying and streamed its golden hues across the red dirt, spreading warmth onto the lake. Jimmy’s shadow paused for a moment then continued shaking the urine from its leg. ‘You mind your language. Little dog pissed on me!’

A dog barked in the distance.  The female voice laughed.  Her shadow jiggled and flickered across the salt lake from her staccato spasms.  It looked like a rap artist bopping to a song. ‘Occupational hazard when you’re a statue Jimmy.’

‘What the hell is a dog doing out here anyway? We are nowhere.’

‘We are inside Australia. They come to see us,’ she replied.

‘See what? There’s nothing here but salt, wind, sun and rain.’

‘People have come for much less…and there’s us.’

Jimmy’s shadow stooped down and touched the soft, red clay. The shadow’s hand reached up and threw the dirt across the dry lake bed. It scattered in clumps, rolled across the lake and then lay still as if it had never been disturbed.

Jimmy sighed. ‘They don’t come to see us. We are no one. Just statues. Etches of someone who we don’t even know. They don’t even really stop to look at us.’

‘Vain are we Jimmy?’

‘It’s not that. It’s just that they photograph my shadow more than they photograph me.’

The female shadow laughed again. Her shadowy breasts jutted back and forth like two skewers poking at the red dirt. ‘They photograph you. They photograph the light. They photograph your shadow. They photograph the lake. We are not alone out here.’

‘I am alone.’

‘You are not alone Jimmy. Your shadow is right next to you.’

Jimmy turned his head and watched his shadow follow. He waved and it waved back. ‘My shadow didn’t get urinated on.’

The female shadow laughed. ‘True, but it feels your grief.’

Jimmy’s shadow raised both arms in exasperation. ‘Is it enough for you?’

The female shadow turned toward him. ‘Is what enough Jimmy?’

‘Is it enough for you to be here? Alone. In the middle of a desolate lake. Photographed by the odd wanderer. Is that enough?’

‘They come to see me in relation to what is around me,’ the female replied. ‘They come to see me, my shadow, your shadow, the light around us, the lake, the stars at night.’

‘The universe.’

‘Yes Jimmy, the universe. It is enough.’

© running with the beagle 2010

snow white


image of small child

I was born in filthy weather. Sheets of rain fell on the dry, cracked earth creating a red mess. It was as if the earth had spewed up its internal core – all over our small town. Dark eyes could be seen at every window, watching the stinging rain with interest, as if the rain never came. But it was the wind that interested them. They’d never seen such howling gales, or trees bent backwards with so much force they might snap and Mrs Omar’s cat lifted in the air and flung across the road. Mr Minks survived.

Mother said the earth was angry that day and I figured it must have been angry because I was born. My birth day was something she feared.

‘Highly superstitious your mother,’ my Father told me as I sat on his knee and looked into his dark eyes hovering high above me. ‘She thinks there is something to fear in you, but I see only light.’ He winked at me and I snuggled my face into his itchy shirt.

She didn’t like the bond between Father and I. She’d frown on these occasions. Her dark hair would frame her frustration and make her look like the witches I saw in my fairytale books. Dark, brooding and self-obsessed.

‘You have the devil in you child,’ she’d say as she pulled me off my Father’s kneed and shoved my yellow-white hair back away from my face to reveal a bright star-shaped birth mark on my forehead.

‘Or an angel. It’s a star Loretta,’ my Father winked at me as he spoke to my mother. I was white in a dark man’s world my father said. Albino, I often heard them say touching my hair as if it was magical and powerful. My Mother didn’t like the attention I drew.

Still, we got a long carefully until I was five. She would look at me with suspicion and I would smile back. She’d shake her head and tut as she wiggled her hips through the housework.

Our uneasy relationship ended when she met The Prophet.

The church stood alone on the dirt track and she’d sway her hips up to it every Sunday. Father and I would tag along behind her while she sang. That Sunday the new Prophet came to the church. He stopped in the middle of his sermon when he saw me.

‘This child,’ he said pointing at my hair. ‘This child is marked. This child is a witch and we must do what we can to cast out the witch from our town.’

My Mother turned and nodded with the others. ‘Praise the Lord,’ she said.

I looked up to my Father who looked graver than I’d ever seen him. He put his arm around me and drew me close. ‘Come, let’s go now child,’ he said quietly and pushed me out the door.

To be continued.

© running with the beagle 2010

http://www.steppingstonesnigeria.org/

the silence


He looked at her sitting within an arm’s length from the television and wondered how he would tell her. She was only seven. Her brown curly hair mimicked his dark, uncontrollable curls, now thinning from age and stress. She didn’t notice him standing in the doorway and faced the television with a stillness he yearned for. The television was unusually quiet, as if it understood this new sadness they faced.

He was numb from the day and on auto-pilot. He needed to shake it off. He needed to feel. He couldn’t tell her without feeling.

‘M,’ he said quietly. No nicknames, he needed her to know this was important.

She turned her head. Her eyes were grey today. They changed with her moods. One day vivid blue, the next rich green. But today, they were a cool grey. The dark circles under her eyes looked out-of-place – too old for a seven-year old.

He crouched down close to her.

‘Lol died today,’ he spat out without ceremony. He didn’t know any other way to say it.

She looked at him and nodded. She didn’t move to hug him, she didn’t cry, she didn’t lower her head. Her eyes looked light and weightless next to the darkness that circled them, like they would almost float off.

He didn’t know what he should do.

She turned back to face the television. He stood up, looked down at her stillness and then moved his eyes across the suburban lounge room. It spoke of silence as the dull, muted television tones continued around him. He nodded to the room in agreement.

She heard him.  She understood.  This is how she should react.  She had the knowledge this was coming, she saw her mum and dad exhausted from harsh fluorescent glare of the hospital.  There was nothing left for any of them to say.  He bowed his head toward her and walked out of the room to sit in the silence of the day.

falling down


Image: Arthur Rackham, 1907

I imagined when Alice fell down the rabbit-hole she fell elegantly. A gentle drop, floating down toward the unknown.

Down,

down,

down.

She had time to think as she fell slowly and wonder what would happen next. She wondered how many miles she fell and if she was getting near the centre of the earth. Indeed, she wondered if she would fall through the earth.

Down,

down,

down.

In a dream-like state she wondered if anyone would miss her while she descended towards the centre of the earth, elegantly falling and floating.

Down,

down,

down.

She had time to think nonsense. Do cats eat bats? she wondered. Do cats eat bats?

?

I thought about Alice today as I remembered when I fell down a hole. I wondered how she managed to fall so elegantly.

I was in Battambang, Cambodia. It’s a crumbling old French provincial town, lined by the murky Sangker River. It is smaller and less congested than its sister city Phnom Penh and the children have bigger, whiter smiles.

Like Alice, I was in awe of its beauty and wanted to follow its magic. Husband and I had drinks at the two-storey Riverside Balcony Bar. The bar sits on the banks of the murky river that snakes its way through the city, and bubbles and slurps quietly. It’s nice being close to the water. Watching it flow quickly through the city is soothing. It didn’t need to be blue. We sat and drank, played a game of cards, ate pizza, listened to the crickets chirping, breathed the humid air and watched the water move.

Some take a taxi back to their hotel. We walked. Like Alice, I’m curious.

‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’

I wanted my pictures to speak of the city that I saw for myself, walking through it. We walked back along the murky, moving river. I felt almost dream-like, like Alice. It was dark and there was little lighting along the river but I could hear the water flow. The moonlight was bright and the trees made shadows on the path we walked on. It was hard to see the dips and cracks in the poorly maintained path. I saw a big dark shadow in front of me. Husband was in front so I thought it was okay and I stomped my heavy trekking boot down on the shadow. I felt that if I stomped my foot down with confidence, the path will be more secure and real.

And I fell.

Down,

down,

down.

Except there was no white rabbit to follow. I immediately panicked and wondered how deep the hole was. My hands flew out in front of me to grab something. What had I got myself into? I wanted to protect my face so I turned to try land on my back. It ended as quickly as it begun.

Thud. I didn’t float.

Down, down, down, thud.

No time to wonder how many miles I’d fallen. Two metres all up. I didn’t wonder if cats ate bats. I didn’t have time to wonder at all.

Husband stopped in front of me. I cried out some sort of incoherent word. I wanted to cry like a five-year would cry when they fall over and scrape their knee. Silence and then a loud and sudden cry. I remained in the hole in shock.

This wasn’t how Alice experienced it. I wasn’t in England, tripping over grassy hills covered in English wildflowers. I didn’t fall elegantly. My shoulder burned where I fell on it. I tried to move and it was agony. I thought I’d broken my arm or shoulder. I wanted my mother there, stroking my hair and singing ‘you are my sunshine’ like she used to when I had a fever.

Ex-army husband went into soldier mode. ‘Get yourself up, check your vitals.’

I still wanted to cry and couldn’t move. I felt the burning on my palms that comes from scraping them on gravel and I knew there was blood. I gasped in the humid air like a winded five-year old.

‘I think I broke something.’

‘You’d know if you broke something. You’d be screaming.’

Husband helped me out of the hole, still in soldier mode.

‘Check yourself out. Just cuts and bruises, I’m sure. You’re fine.’

And I thought, Alice didn’t have to do this. She landed in a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over. She was not a bit hurt, and she jumped up on to her feet in a moment: she looked up, but it was all dark overhead. I looked up and it was dark but I was a bit hurt.

And I didn’t float. I just fell.

I should have read Alice in Wonderland before the trip. ‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that! I advise you to leave off this minute!’ she would have told me. It just sounds better coming from her (rather than husband).

© running with the beagle 2010

Swimfin


The Lady was restless. She sat in her white wicker chair and looked out across Inya Lake. The frangipani trees rustled in the wind and she tilted her head up to breathe in their sweet smell. She wished the rain would come. The dust from the long Yangon summer was permanently suspended in the air and stuck in her throat. She wanted the rain to fall on the soft clay earth. She wanted to hear its heavy, soft rhythm – thud, thud, thud. It would cleanse the city as the waters snaked their way through the streets to take away the filth to the rivers. And there it would sit, coffee-coloured, like a disease waiting to spread.

She looked at Inya Lake through the razor wire – a makeshift prison to remind her of her house arrest. She longed to walk the streets of Yangon again – stroll around Shwe Dagon Pagoda and breathe the humid damp air in the old cathedrals. She remembered the flowering trees in Maha Bandoola Park. Their yellow blossoms so full and rich, they dripped with life. How she longed to breathe their perfume.

The blue waters of Inya Lake were calm and serene. They showed no hint of a dying country. Her eyes floated across the lake; the still water said nothing back to her.

A moment passed. A splash. Movement. The Lady squinted and leaned in to watch the commotion in the water. A moving object. Or a person? The unnatural movement told her it was not an animal.

She continued to stare across the smooth expanse of the lake broken by the turbulent water moving closer. It was a man. He looked like some sort of frog man with strange webbed feet and a clunky snorkel strapped to his head. He was heavy-set. Not some young student who’d decided to swim out to her house to show his allegiance. It had happened once before.

The Lady sat quietly and watched the man move forward. A number of locals stopped on the bridge and peered at the man. He was moving toward her.

The guards standing outside her house stood to attention. Alert, but unmoved by the man swimming with less elegance than a water buffalo. The Lady thought he would tire soon enough and perhaps drown; the lake was deep in parts. She wondered if she could persuade one of the guards to help him if that happened. She doubted the guards could swim.

The man kept moving forward, splashing and lapping at the water until he pulled his bedraggled, paunchy frame out of the water. A white man. The Lady sighed. What on earth was he doing here? A ruddy face and pale white skin – he was British.

His board shorts clung to him, sticky and dripping with the stagnant water. He squelched and squeaked his way up to the Lady’s house. The guards stood to attention, ready to pounce as he neared. Then he went out of sight under a hill.

The Lady sunk back into her chair. Perhaps he wasn’t a fanatic supporter of hers. Perhaps he was an expat, high on heroin and dared to do this stunt by fellow expats sitting back at the Inya Lake hotel, drinking gin and tonics as the sun went down. Whatever it was, she was glad it didn’t implicate her and wanted no further part of it.

She turned back to her novel and decided she’d done enough reading for today. She stood up and moved out to her garden to tend to her plants. It was a kind of freedom – something she was still able to do. The frangipani flowers, melting from the heat had fallen on the thick grass and left white dots scattered across the garden, almost like a bread crumb trail. Her eyes followed the trail and stopped when she saw him, standing in her garden.

The water dripped from him like fat monsoonal rain and fell on his feet encased in black and yellow flippers. The Lady drew in a sharp breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t be alarmed, I haven’t come here to hurt you – I just wanted to see you.”

“Stop!” The guard cried. “Don’t move.”

Inspired by John Yettaw http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suu_Kyi_trespasser_incidents

© running with the beagle 2010