For my pregnant sister, who wanted a fairy tale.
“I’m right here.”
He squeezed her hand and she closed her eyes. The sand came a warm powder between her toes. It was the ocean in front of her, big and empty, the same as it always was.
Calm ocean and a breeze that was almost cool. Wavelets spread to a ripple, wide dome of cloudless sky above. The high noon of a rainless summer. Surface aglitter, myriad sparkles in long retreat, it looked like, gone to a trembling flatness of sun.
Stay with me. You’re almost there.
Across that blue now, through the horizon and past the whitecaps where the wind blew strong. Where rising waves cast mist in the air and curled underneath and threw upward spray that was cold and salty. Where everything would be taken and gone.
Borders closing in, and it was the collapsing swirl of heavy seas and daylight sky to the night. No stars, up there. Only the passing fluorescence fading fast down the hall, the highway in speeding reverse, blurring fields out the window where the horses and cattle stood still, the crumbling gravel on the last road home winding up and under the blackwoods faster now stay awake I have to stay awake I have to, she said to no-one.
Excuse me, miss?
“Hello, earth to m’lady. Wake up now.”
Her cheek was pressed to the grass, body asprawl. She turned upwards and slowly opened her eyes. Standing above was the shadowed figure of the voice. She raised her hand to a brim, and squinted. They were short and round with a posture that was curiously pronounced.
About her the grass was dark emerald and evenly spread to patchworks of moss. A small meadow in the bush, it was, half sheltered by manferns and willow, with gumtrees and flowering wattles at its edge.
“Sorry to wake you, but this area is booked and I must ask you to move on,” they said. Eyes adjusted, she saw their face, sanguine and swollen as a pufferfish. They were dressed in various brightly coloured felts, with fat drooping ears and a leather cap lined with twirling vines of silver. He was male, she supposed, but it was hard to tell.
“Where am I?” she asked, still in a dream.
He regarded her a moment. “You’re in Erinn, fallen asleep in the Moss Garden,” he said, with curiosity. “You don’t remember how you got here?”
“No, last thing I remember, I was…” And she realised then that she could not.
Her eyes closed tight and opened again, and the scene was still the same. She looked down to her clothing: a silken dress of purple and off-white with crossings of golden string up her chest.
He realised she had no idea. With a softer tone, said: “May I ask your name?”
“Penelope,” she replied, glad to know. “Yes, my name is Penelope.”
“Well, miss Penelope, my name is Roger Rabbit. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
He reached out a tiny hand as fat as it was long, and they shook friendly with a smile. Standing up, she was more than twice Roger’s height, a giant all of a sudden, which happenstance Roger appeared more than accustomed to. His nature, she then knew, was as it should be. Her surroundings somewhat peculiar, no doubt, but still they were perfectly familiar. All she had to do, was remember.
“I would help you, ordinarily, but the guests are arriving any minute and attendance is strictly invitation only,” he said. “See that track over there? Follow it south down the hill. I’ll send word ahead for someone to assist you.”
She understood, and with a nod of goodbye wandered out from the meadow to the parallel tracks there sunken in the scrub. Down the slope but a dozen paces later she heard commotion through the tall bracken and groundfern. Around she turned and there past the misty haze of pollen and shade she saw glimpses of the gathering there arriving. Flickers of beastly form a moment seen then gone, brightly coloured hats and silken cravats and pipes that were surely too ornate to smoke, the hinted passing of plumage and fur and many a magnificent horn…
What a great chatter among them, she thought, transfixed, and what ethereal harmonies they sang, the chants of some elven dream, fading, suddenly, further away as she leant forward to better hear, like they knew she was listening.
A curtain of wattle drew shut, and they were gone. Cicadas zizzed from the undergrowth and leafy rustles swayed high in the breeze. She kept walking.
The details of her past she did not know, and, at that stage, nor did she care to. Experience without memory coloured her senses, and she knew she was still herself, whoever that was, and it didn’t matter who she was, in that place. All she knew, was the present; a child full of wonder without the weight of memory, her passage one unburdened by the past.
The path followed an old barbed-wire fence and turned into a shadowy swallow of the bush. Peaceful twilight of a filtered daytime welcomed her. Native cherry lined the road a perfect row of christmas trees, and from overhead the gumleaves fell a floating snow. Here was the heart of a great benevolence, she could tell, sensing that it was also watching.
A wallaby stood waiting at the next rise, the help that Roger had sent for.
Penelope, I take it?
His voice was deep and surprisingly burly. He scratched his chest and flicked his ears and sniffed, and from the outside seemed to be paying her no attention, were it not for his words in her head.
“Yep, that’s me.”
Roger said you were tall. I suppose you almost are, but I’ve seen much taller, you know.
A telepathic wallaby with a discourteous attitude was only strange, she thought, for how normal it was. How familiar and normal everything was, in that place. She also knew that with her memory returned, this sort of thing would be anything but. For the moment, however, she was reduced to the essence of herself, and to her essence such a world replete with telepathic wallabies might even be called home.
“Well I’ve seen kangaroos twice your size,” she replied, to which his ears flicked, and his outer nonchalance remained the same.
Kangaroos, you say?
“Very tall kangaroos.”
A girl like you knows nothing. I’ll bet you weren’t aware, for instance, that kangaroos are so dimwitted and far down the food chain around here, that they’re literally forced to eat their own shit, now were you?
She stifled a smile, and looked at him half mocking. “Why don’t they just eat the grass?”
Not only that, but they’re shockingly cruel to chickens, and go out of their way to harass the potoroos, and they for no reason whatsoever vomit in wombat burrows, and…
“Okay, okay I get it,” she snapped, hands raised. “Sorry for bringing them up.” Who would have known wallabies were so bitter, she thought.
A peculiar feature of Penelope’s amnesia she was just beginning to appreciate, was her lingering memories of her every experience with animalkind, all of whom were curiously spared from the blindness of her memory loss. The phenomenon was common enough at the time to make its absence in the literature somewhat conspicuous, but still it was rare to the extent that it only occurred in those with a highly unique sensitivity, and who typically shared a deeper trust in animals than they did people, as Penelope did. It was for this reason she immediately knew the wallaby had been lying about the kangaroos.
Alright then, apology accepted. My name is Sporty Spice, by the way. You best follow me.
Completely normal, Penelope reassured herself.
Sporty Spice the wallaby sniffed and turned and walked in the typical wallaby crawl she then realised she knew not what to call. The tire tracks wound through the bush straight and bending over corrugations of easy slopes and smooth descents and eventually they neared the open day. The conversation was more one-sided and self-aggrandising than she felt was proper, but Sporty Spice was too taken by the sudden gift of Penelope’s audience for her to bother objecting.
…and the crowd said, What bravery! How do you stay so humble after such a heroic conquest? And I would simply explain that it was All in a day’s work, before bidding them adieu and heading out to single-handedly defeat with nothing more than my wits and tail yet another…
Penelope stopped listening. At the edge of the bush the track found the fenceline and ran straight a hundred yards to a rickety old gate ahead. The sky opened from out the trees and the hotness of the day came down heavy. Yonder over the wire were dead-grass paddocks spread thin over hills that receded like dunes into the dry, and smoke from a cottage on the closest rise billowed stark in a drift against the clear blue. She had been up there before, she knew. The terrier dogs had barked and bitten at her legs as she ran from the yard, carrying a ball. She could almost remember the owner, there stood at the door, but the figure was obscured a faceless blur, their voice barely a mumble. It was only the dogs she could see.
Suddenly, Sporty stopped at a halt, and raised his nose with a sniff. Something had caught his attention. He looked to the left and right and then into the bush beyond the side of the track. She saw his eyes widen, and his words then came with a new urgency.
His alarm quickly her own, Penelope froze, and she followed his gaze. Between the trees in the direction he was facing, all was still. Quiet but for the wooden creaks of branches somewhere in the deep. They both stared, a breathless eternity, it seemed, and it was motion in the cutting grass afar that she saw first. An acre away, and difficult to discern. A flash of black steel, she fancied, gone quick beneath the leafline of bracken; a brief disturbance, just as soon gone. Her heartrate lifted fast. The strangeness of things since waking had been clear, but, this was different. Sporty’s unblinking stare told her us much. Stronger though was the tingling sense of a new and unknown foreboding in the quiet, and the sense that, whatever it was, it knew exactly where she stood.
Suddenly came crashing and movement. A wide path flattened towards them at a breakneck speed, and sticks and stems were thrown in the air like mulch. A rapid clanking and tremendous thudding on the ground grew louder, and louder. It would be upon them in mere seconds.
Don’t move, whatever happens, don’t move.
Metres from the track, barely concealed, it stopped. Everything went silent. The bush static but for the breeze, just as before. Then, clicking. Quiet, at first, from there under the bracken leaves, clicking, volume on the rise, and slow and steady there rose two long, twitching antenna. Things weren’t looking good at all. Slowly they lowered, and, once again, all went still. In explosive forward burst the creature – an enormous centipede – then came into view and raised itself high and black and hideously spinal, and a hundred leg-spikes writhed up the sides of its trunk to a hostile flare. Penelope’s heart pounded so hard that it nearly shot from her chest. The centipede then leant back, serpentine in a moment’s contemplation, and arched itself down to within touching distance of her face.
Giant mandibles curved inwards like piercing devil horns in front of her, and they were bloodstained, she saw, dripping with the viscous oozings of a green venom, and from its mouth the stench of steaming rot blew thick in her face. She saw her fish-eye reflection warped a hopeless prey in the cold blackness of its eyes, and knew – how could it be otherwise? – that she was surely about to die. Its mandibles snapped together an inch from her neck and then spread wide, and it moved forward and closed them hard a loose ring around her head, its mouth so close then that her face stung with acidic wet from its breath. She closed her eyes.
Come back to me.
The voice floated familiar through the trance of her fear and it did not belong to Sporty. It was him, she knew, the one she felt but could not remember. She took a deep breath, and her heartbeat began to slow. Deeper, so deep you can feel your stomach rise. She opened her eyes. The centipede’s mouth there dripped globular in slower motion, out of focus, distant. She understood, then. Her fear was the point. It wanted her afraid, before it feasted – and there, in this creature, she saw, was the difference between mere beast, and a monster.
Instinct then placed her hands to her belly that she now felt was round, and heavy, holding her child. Her first child. Alive, precious, growing inside her. She was to be a mother. How could she possibly forget? You forgot, so you could remember again.
Her stance hardened, eyes dilated. The centipede came into sharp, crystallised focus, and a rising anger rendered her fear gone in an instant. Without hesitating, she kneed as hard as she could the centipede’s chin, which was solid as thick iron and ripped into her skin and the pain shot a hot dagger up her thigh. It had been too caught in the satisfaction of its bloodlust to react, and Penelope dropped and dashed to the side with an agility surprising even to her, and in spite of the pain she twisted and raised her leg and landed with a thump the heel of her foot on the softer underside of its armour. The centipede wheezed with surprise and pain and coiled its body back to study with a new curiosity the easy meal that was suddenly its enemy. Lucky shot, it seemed to say. It spread its fangs of mandibles and clicked its mouth with a deafening screech, poised fierce in readiness for attack, when a shadow fell from above and it looked up and there blocking the sun flew the kicking silhouette of a crazed Sporty Spice, the apex of his high arch apparently reached, falling then from a great height a strike of marsupial lightning square on the centipede’s forehead, his tail wrapping immediately with a yank around an antenna stem as he delivered a rapid and powerful series of kicks to the outer shell of its face with a force that far exceeded what could ever be expected of his modest wallaby frame; and the centipede recoiled and swung in desperation to free itself but Sporty’s tailgrip was too firm and he kept kicking unabated, and the cracking of the shell crunched loud in the air and kick after kick landed with blackbelt precision and it frantically spun and threw itself headlong into the bush and bashed its head hard against the trunks of the trees, the shattering impacts of which Sporty sidestepped with ease and which only inflicted more damage to the wound he was still kicking. They tumbled and rolled a monster’s rodeo in a cloud of debris and a great wake of destruction was there left while Penelope watched on as they disappeared from view, her hands rubbing gently her belly, smiling, grateful, and very much relieved.
Sporty’s chatter was back before he was, emboldened with victory and a new tale of his unparalleled bravery and might. The trampled earth and fallen trees recovered quickly, healed back to order in minutes by unseen forces of the bush; everything as it was, as though it had all been a dream, which she would sooner believe, were it not for the gloating of her new friend Sporty Spice the wallaby.
They walked on, and the gate, which was open and lay broken on its side, drew near. Beyond was a grassy plain scattered with all sizes of wattle, and a twostorey timber house down in the middle of the clear. The tire tracks cut through the longer grass to the shorter grass that was really a lawn, and tapered off to nothing on the flat. Mosaic stained glass in all its windows and tall iron roofing made the house seem a church for a religion with no idols. Distant, it was, even though by the measure of the track it must have been close. Quiet down there. Empty, with the vague impressions of life, like the occupants had only just left; gardens in a buzz, roof ticking in the hot, chickens chattering somewhere down the back.
Sounds like a kangaroo might’ve gotten to them recently.
She smiled. “Thanks for helping out before, Sporty.”
“All in a day’s work,” he said, pleased with himself. A breeze picked up a whisper over the grass to their feet. Wait a minute, she thought.
“You can talk?”
Sporty returned her gaze with newfound agency. “Of course I can talk. Easier not to though, sometimes, when there’s a good mind-bonding to be had.”
“Yes, mind-bonding. No better new bond than with a mother still carrying her child. You’ve already one open, you see.”
She looked him in the eyes, puzzled. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“But of course you do,” he laughed. “You’ve been speaking to each other since they were there to be spoken with. Curious thing, really. The way mothers can communicate with their unborn children without language or gesture.”
“Haven’t you been using language with me, though?”
“More or less. But we’re in the shallow end, you and I. With your baby, it’s different. Quite beautiful, when you think about it: at this very moment, right there, in your belly, exists the deepest possible connection between two beings in the entire universe. So deep, in fact, that much of the back-and-forth will have been well outside your awareness.”
Penelope hadn’t noticed herself place her hand, when she felt the kick. She looked down. Sporty Spice had it right, she knew. Tears brimmed in the corners of her eyes, and she hoped that this courageous little wallaby could tell the depth behind her earlier words of thank you.
In any case, Penelope, this is where we part ways. I wish you and your baby the wealth of the absolute best. You should be fine from here.
Without further ceremony he turned and jumped and she watched him hop down the track where he soon took a hard left into the bush, and was gone. The afternoon dimmed as a cloud edged across the sun, and the onset of the evening approached. The sense of familiarity was growing stronger, she noticed, as she kept walking, doing her best not to limp. Her hands glided delicate through the long grass, and radials of yellow sunlight slanted in the shade where grasshoppers were taking short flight and the mosquitoes and cabbage moths danced frenetic and reckless. Ahead, the stained glass windows of the house came aglow, somehow alive in the absence of things; the gate behind further away as she glanced back, house none the closer looking forward, suspended, it seemed, increasingly distant in some strange illusion of light and space…
You forgot, so you could remember again.
The last of the trees was behind her. Twilight descended beneath the night’s first sparkles and the crescent of a quarter moon as the sun was swallowed a burning orange by low hanging clouds to the west. Remembering, is a finding. The blockages in her mind vibrated and shook at his words, but they were too stubborn to budge. She knew she could trust him, only she didn’t know how. Why would she lose something to find it again?
A losing is rarely by choice.
She soon found herself in the desolate open. The broken gate behind, long gone. Cool air turning cold, and the house, farther away, rich with life: coloured windows that cast kaleidoscopes across the grass; a dog’s bark; the echoing clangs of dishes in a sink; and white chimney smoke risen soft to a thin mist, it all warping distant a dreamscape she could see, but was unable to reach.
Come back. There’s someone who wants to meet you. She could hear then the tears in his eyes. She felt but could not say his name, could feel the phantom of the association of his memory, but could not see his face.
All she had to do, was remember – remembering, is a finding. Yet her only memories were the chickens and the kookaburras, the kangaroos and the dogs: the animals in their respective places in this familiar yet fantastical world she found herself in. The goats next to the driveway. The dogs on the hill that tried to bite her leg as she ran from the yard, carrying the ball.
She stopped walking. The ball. How did she remember that ball? Such a small, innocuous detail. The bigger dog had lunged for it, she could see it clearly. She closed her eyes to focus. It was a tennis ball, fuzzed and chewed-on, too bright to be old. She remembered running as fast as she could, that she reached the fence and hoisted herself up and the dogs went for her heels, but she was too quick raising her legs and they missed and collided against the planks. Her shoe caught at the top and she fell over the side where it all went a blur and the world and the ball faded black, and it was only the sound of the dogs yelping that was left, and the emotion she felt, her compassion when she heard their pain, which exceeded the excitement of her escape.
A spark of realisation came over her. She could see the ball, but could do so only when the dogs were in view; could feel the emotions she had felt back then, but only when they related to the cries they had made. And it was the same for them all. In the dark and opaque vacuum of her amnesia, her recollections of animals, it seemed, inexplicably, were like spotlights. Objects of her memory whose contexts were as visible as they were.
Her memory began opening, and her mind was flooded with visions of the past. Her first cat Winter headbutting her ankles in the kitchen; her first dog Lemon rolled on her back on the grass for a tummy scratch, smelling like dried mud from a swamp; the huntsman spiders that crawled on her bedroom wall and protected her while she slept; the goats with floppy ears that stole the foodscraps meant for the chickens and mother hens followed by a dozen chicks just hatched. Tunnels through the darkness of her unseeable past that intertwined and whose girth of sight broadened the more she focused, the surroundings of each becoming clearer, wider. Yet in none of these was the man she felt but could not remember. And she saw through these memories that the house with the stained glass that receded in front of her was like the house she grew up in, but it was not the same; and it was in the differences between the two that she realised at last that it was a dream.
She trusted his voice more than anything. He was telling her to find him, to find her way back – that all she needed to do, was remember. And the only course to his memory that her dreamworld allowed, it seemed, was within in the beams of her animal spotlights. Yet the only animals whose memory she could conjure where those reminisced by her surroundings, and she could not see him there; he wasn’t there, in her childhood, and so to what end could these kinds of memories really serve?
Penelope looked at the house, far away, glowing, a warmly lit tableau in the darkness. Pay attention to the feeling. The feeling of that house, not unlike the one she grew up in, that wasn’t the same house at all. Feel the emotion it gave. The feeling of home. Her home. The home that her dreaming mind expressed through the artefacts of her childhood, like that house. A dreamhouse based on her childhood home, that represented whichever place she felt safe and warm, and loved, that she came back to. The house that was also an expression of him. His voice had made her feel all those things. And she saw then the shadow at the open door, small, distant, spectral a faceless blur without form, and she knew it was him.
And she also knew that she would be able to remember, and find him, that there was hope, for she also knew the essence of herself well enough to know that she would never have a home without her spotlights.
The pain in her leg all but vanished and she held up the sides of her dress as she began to run. Cold night’s air struck fresh against her face. The house stopped receding, and she ripped the dress below the knees to run faster. The silk reflected her a runaway princess in the moonlight, and she scarcely believed how fast she could move. The house bent and wobbled and warped as the illusion gave way to her will, and elation washed her over as she saw it start to move closer. His figure backed away from the door when finally she reached the steps, heavy chested, but not out of breath, warmth of the inside room greeting her with the yellow glow of wooden light. She stepped inside, on the floorboards that were smooth and polished and firm with no creaks, around the couch that was old but surprisingly comfortable, to the dog asleep in front of the fire of the big stone fireplace, her dog, her lanky and adoring Halsey, whose tail wagged before she woke and who wheezed in pleasure as Penelope hugged her tight, the curled bodies of their blissful embrace the vision of happiness.
Halsey the rescue dog they went to collect on their third anniversary, the one who had whimpered at the back of the cage and tentatively crept forward when Penelope held out her hand. Halsey whose distrusting eyes saw in the tenderness of Penelope’s smile the same safety that was taken from her as a pup. A mother who would provide the freedom she yearned for.
Penelope had turned to Ramsey with a look he knew all too well. “I’ll fetch the volunteer lady,” he said. Halsey licked her hand through the wire, and two signatures later they were on the way home. She didn’t look out the car window that day. Whenever Penelope turned to the back seat, she saw her hunched in a ball, her tail wagging, staring back.
Ramsey had reached over and held her hand, his smiling profile somehow stoic as he drove. His assured hand, the hand that had been an island in her every storm. It was him. And he was her husband. She had found the face of the voice that had guided her, and it was him. The memory bloomed white as she opened her eyes, and he was there, standing over her as she lay with Halsey on the floor. He picked her up and pulled her close and they hugged tightly, the puzzle of their love connected, and complete. The loungeroom then began to spin, and the dreamworld spiralled and collapsed all around them, and he smiled as he released her and she fell into black, swiftly taken to sunlight, from out the house that was once her home, past the goats and fallen blackwood and the old tadpole pond hidden in the blackberry thickets down the drive, past the endless rows of saplings and the pothole puddles and the bridge beyond the bus stop that used to flood, and fast round the round-a-bout of her childhood town and up the highway that bypassed the bakery, to the last descent that overlooked the old city with the rusted rooftops atop the balustrades of those big victorian houses, and high across the river that wound sharp through the marshlands and flowed to the salty spray of heavy seas and the wind that carried her north up the rocky coast, to the calm waters of the beach, where warm sun was cooled by the breeze against her cheek, and powdery sand scrunched soft between her toes, the sparkling ocean in front of her, his arms over her shoulders, sat back, whisper of his voice in her ear, her smiling eyes closed.
The world came slowly to focus, and it was Ramsey, red-eyed, and relieved, who she saw first. “She’s awake,” said the midwife, almost in a shout, as she left to find the nurse. The room was dimly lit, subtle with the scent of some native flower, the bed so soft it could not be felt.
“You had me worried there,” he said, kissing her hand.
“What happened?” she asked, too weak to guess.
His expression turned tender. “All that matters, is you found your way back.”
“I could hear you, you know.”
He smiled broadly and kissed her gentle on the lips, and stood with a look. She saw in his eyes that she didn’t need to ask.
He left the room, and it was the sound of footsteps on the floorboards down the hall. A door opened slow, with a squeak. Words spoken in a hush that she could not hear. Footsteps return, his shadow at the doorway floor. A breath so deep her stomach rose, eyes shut in the longest blink, and there, in his arms, bundled a snuggle in the cosiest blanket she had been able to find, was her everything.
The bed dipped as he sat beside. He kissed her temple, and it was a weeping rapture in which she laughed, leaning in, close enough to see. Look what I found.