What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility. There used to be a peculiar human majesty in my line of work: the woman with hair so long she could wind it ten times around her waist; old Frankie Block, who could wrestle a horse to the ground; the boy with a foxtail. There was a good reason we referred to ourselves as The Weird Police. Now it’s more likely to be a conga-line of Elvis impersonators sponsored by McDonalds. Somewhere along the way the job lost its magic, but perhaps that was just me.
It was dusk when I pulled over to phone my wife. I would be gone for only two nights, but caring for our daughter Therese was gruelling, melancholy work, like tending to a fire perpetually on the verge of going out. More than once I had come home to discover Elaine sitting in the near-dark, weeping with the endlessness of it all, and there was nothing I could do but hold her until she felt better. It took hours, sometimes. At others, all night.
My phone didn’t have reception out on the back roads. I trudged into a cold and muddy field with it held foolishly over my head, but it was no use; I would have to call from the motel in Kyneton.
When I returned to the car, the damn thing refused to start. I fished out a torch, popped the bonnet and peered at the engine, but the mass of wires and pipes might as well have been Sanskrit hieroglyphs for all the sense I could make of them. No cars passed. There was not a house in sight. I cursed my decision to take the scenic route. At least on the highway someone might stop and help. On the highway my phone would have reception.
I jiggled a few wires and checked the radiator, but it was no use. By now the horizon was darkening and the wind had turned sharp and bitter. Again I stared at the mute, incomprehensible engine and it occurred to me that a mechanic might have fared better with Therese than any of her medical specialists had over the years. I held my freezing hands over the engine, but the heat it gave off was minimal and diminished noticeably as I stood there.
I was beginning to resign myself to the prospect of spending the night in the car when a voice startled me. I swung around to see a large man approaching through the gloom. ‘G’day,’ he said again.
Embarrassed to have been discovered warming myself over a dead engine, I took my hands back and greeted him.
‘Everything alright?’ he asked.
I gestured to the engine. ‘Car’s broken down on me. I pulled over to make a phone call and now it won’t start.’
The fellow was about my age, dressed in overalls, with a shock of grey hair that flapped about like a bird’s broken wing. He stood nodding at the roadside verge and considered me for a moment. ‘Want me to take a look?’
‘Yes, that would be great. Thanks.’ I held out my hand. ‘I’m Daniel Shaw, by the way.’
The man grunted and shook my hand, reluctantly, it seemed. ‘Dave. They call me Angola ‘round here.’
‘Angola. Like the place?’
He started. ‘You’ve heard of it?’
He paused. ‘Well, I spent a few years there.’
He took my torch, positioned it on the rim of the bonnet where it would provide the best light, and set about poking around inside. After a few minutes he urged me to try the ignition again, which I did, but without any luck.
‘Dunno mate,’ Angola said, wiping his hands on a rag he produced from a back pocket. ‘Reckon she’s stuffed for now, though. Where you going?’
‘Kyneton. How far is that?’
Again he looked at me as if puzzled to find me there at all. By now it was almost dark. The only light was that of the torch which, at that moment, splashed its light across the right half of his face. I imagined us from a distance – two men, strangers to each other, on a lonely road – and felt a jolt of fear.
‘Too far to walk,’ he said at last above a roar of sudden wind. He undid the bracket supporting the upraised bonnet, grabbed the torch and let the bonnet fall. ‘But you can stay the night at my place, if you like.’
‘I need to be there by 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. There’s something I have to verify. I work for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and there’s supposed to be a parrot that can count to 150. I have to check it’s true. We might use it in the next annual.’
That piqued his interest. It usually did. Angola sauntered closer and looked me over. ‘You work for Ripley’s? Like the TV show? Ha. You musta seen some pretty weird things.’
I laughed. The world’s most-tattooed man, the girl with eighteen fingers, the ultra-marathon runners. He didn’t know the half of it.
With his thumb he indicated the field beside the road, beyond which, presumably, he lived. ‘My daughter has a pretty special trick, actually. Maybe you should come and see her? Put her in your big old book.’
He said this in a mildly lascivious manner I didn’t care for, but, as usual, that word pricked my heart, deflating it ever further. Daughter. I thought again of poor Elaine, poor Therese; my silent, waiting family. I hoped my wife had at least turned on the lights before pouring her first Scotch.
‘You got kids?’ Angola asked me, handing back the torch.
‘Yes, I have a daughter, too, as a matter of fact.’
He grinned. ‘Then you know what a lovely and terrible thing it is.’
It was an incongruous and curiously poetic description, particularly coming from his gap-toothed mouth. I nodded. For a moment I could not speak. I looked off into the bleak distance, then at this man, and there was something about the sad shake of his head and the way his hair flapped about on his scalp that filled me with unreasonable warmth. A decent man out here in the country, with mud on his boots and the grease of a stranger’s car on his hands.
For reasons best known only to the darker parts of myself, I felt immense shame about Therese, and rarely told anyone of my troubles; I had colleagues, for instance, who were completely unaware of her existence. But, for some reason, out on this road, I felt compelled to tell this man what had happened to her.
I coughed into my fist. ‘But my daughter is – she was in an accident. Eight years ago. She cycled onto the road when she was eleven and got hit by a car. She lost the use of her legs and became brain damaged. We don’t even know if she knows who we are – my wife and I, I mean. They say – the experts, that is – to hope for a miracle, that she might recover some of her movement and coordination. It has happened before, you know. Small breakthroughs, they say. Keep an eye out for small breakthroughs, whatever they might be.’ I could have bored the poor fellow with talk of trauma and lobes and the ripple effect, but instead I tapped my head with my index finger. ‘We don’t really know what goes on in there.’
It was at this point that people usually said something consoling, along the lines of I’m sure she’ll come good one of these days, but the man called Angola merely stared at me, listening, until I said all I had to say. And it was perhaps for this kindness that I enquired after the ‘trick’ of his daughter’s. Normally I would not follow up on every stranger’s claim – for we all believed our children to be possessed of special talents, even those of us whose faith has been worn so thin – but I felt I owed him this small courtesy.
Angola waved my polite query away. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You’d never believe me.’
‘I’ve heard some pretty wild stories, you know.’
He looked at me for a long time, as if attempting to peer into my soul. It was unsettling. I saw now – by what light I couldn’t say, for the sun had well and truly set – that his face was pitted with acne scars and that his left earlobe was malformed. But there, by the road, he told me something so bizarre, and in such a strange manner – looking from side to side, shrugging, mumbling – that I had no choice but to believe him.
I carried the torch as we squelched across a field and ducked between the barbed wire of several fences. I asked him about Africa, but he was reluctant to disclose his reasons for being there and became curiously sullen, saying merely that it was a terrible place and that he hadn’t deserved to be there at all.
It was only when we saw the lights of his small house in the distance that I realized, and stopped. ‘Your name,’ I said, trying to keep the panic from my voice. ‘It’s not for the country is it?’
My companion paused and wiped his meaty paw beneath his nose.
It was freezing. My shoes were sticky with mud. ‘It’s for the prison, isn’t it? In America.’ I recalled an entry from the 1972 Ripley’s annual; an inmate who – although he had never left the state of Louisiana – built a precise scale model of central Paris from toothpicks, complete with street signs and roadside markets, tiny apples and pears.
‘Course it is,’ he growled, and continued walking.
I stared after him until I could barely make him out in the darkness. I pondered my options, which were few. After a minute, I staggered after him.
It was a decision I have come to regret.
Angola’s house was large, but cluttered with thick-legged furniture, piles of toys and the detritus of domestic activity: mounds of knitting, fishing bags, a cricket set. Angola’s wife Carol, elbow-deep in dishwater, seemed perplexed to see me in her house but shook my hand with her own sudsy one and offered me a beer. A teenage boy appeared and grunted at his father before sulking off. I peered around for the daughter about whom I had heard such amazing things, but there was no sign of her. Another son materialised, dutifully shook my hand and vanished. The television blared and I recognised the dopey voice-overs of Australia’s Funniest Home Videos. The sons laughed themselves stupid at something. I think I’ll just take a walk up here on the icy roof . . . Angola and his wife bickered good-naturedly about an unpaid bill. Boinggg.
With their permission, I phoned Elaine from the dim, unheated study at the rear of the house. The window sills were lined with children’s sporting trophies. Football, cricket, tennis. Best and fairest. Under 12 Champion. The small desk was covered with bank statements, shopping catalogues, letters from a local school.
Elaine sounded harried – but not drunk, at least. Her French-accented voice was damp with unshed tears. Not for the first time I felt I might have been starring unwittingly in some mournful European film. She had had a bad day of it: a tradesman had tracked mud into the house and then been unable to fix a pipe we had been waiting on for two weeks; Therese had to be changed three times.
‘But she did a funny thing, Dan. You won’t believe this but I went in this afternoon, she was in the sunroom – you know how she loves to stare at the birds at the feeder – and I swear she reached out to stroke my hair as I leaned over her.’
I paused to take this in. I heard our fridge humming in the background. ‘Are you sure?’
‘She stroked your hair?’
This could be a breakthrough. I leaned forward, elbows on the desk. ‘For how long?’
‘Well. A few seconds.’
‘It could be something, though, couldn’t it?’
‘It wasn’t just a –’
‘Dan. I’m sure.’
Pinned to the wall above the desk where I sat was a child’s drawing of a dog. Bulbous shapes conjoined by stick-like limbs, a scribble of blue cloud. I imagined Therese in her low bed staring at the ceiling where I had stuck luminous stars; her implacable face, her shining eyes. She might have contained entire oceans, shipwrecked galleons, dragons, concertos. I loved my daughter more when I was away from her; her actual presence only highlighted my inability to help her. My beery breath bounced back at me from the plastic receiver, and for the thousandth time since her accident I was flooded with sudden, acute disappointment at how I had so quickly reached the limits of my love.
I told Elaine I would be back the day after tomorrow at the latest, depending on how long it took to get the car repaired.
‘Do you promise?’
She often asked me that. ‘Yes,’ I said.
Returning to the lounge room, I passed a carpeted hallway I hadn’t noticed earlier. Pop music drifted through a part-open door at the other end and a long matchstick of light fell on the swirling carpet. This must be the daughter’s bedroom. I paused to listen, as if the music might offer a clue. I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. Kylie Minogue. Hysterical laughter from the lounge-room, Angola asking his sons something. I shuffled down the hall towards the daughter’s room. She was singing along to the music in a low voice. Despite myself, I sensed the thrill of discovering something truly incredible. What if her father had been telling the truth? I crept closer, almost holding my breath.
‘You right, mate?’
I swivelled around to see Angola standing at the other end of the corridor. Although he was in silhouette, I could tell he was glaring at me. ‘Yes, I was just – ’
‘That’s Chloe’s room.’
‘Oh. I was, ah, looking for the bathroom.’
It was clear he didn’t believe me. He wiped the back of his hand under his nose, then pointed the way I had come. ‘That way. And dinner’s ready.’
In any case, I didn’t have long to wait before seeing the daughter. When I returned from the bathroom, the family was gathered at the dinner table and looked up expectantly at my entrance. The daughter, Chloe, was seated opposite me. She looked ordinary enough, but I couldn’t help inspecting her whenever the opportunity arose.
Dinner was roast lamb with mint sauce and vegetables. Everyone talked at once. The boys bickered and thumped each other. Carol lit up a cigarette at the table as soon as she had eaten. Angola talked on his mobile phone for several minutes. The television raved away in the background. It was disconcerting to be at such a rowdy family dinner, but gradually, with the help of a few beers, I began to enjoy myself. So, I thought, this is family life.
Angola had cooled towards me, but I regaled the gathering with tales from my years as a verifier for Ripley’s. Soon they were all laughing and wide-eyed, gasping in astonishment at South Pacific cargo cults, at the man who dived into buckets of water from great heights, the parachutist who shaved and smoked a cigarette in the time it took to float back to earth.
Angola picked something from his teeth. ‘And do people make, you know, money out of these things?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Sometimes.’
At this, Angola’s wife uttered a curious sound. I could restrain myself no longer and turned to the girl Chloe, who had been quiet the entire meal. ‘So. Your father tells me that you have quite an unusual talent yourself? Would you like to show me what you can do?’
The family fell silent. Then Carol put her head in her hands. ‘Jesus, Dave. I knew it. You told him didn’t you? I knew it …’
Angola started to protest, but his justifications were trumped by the only words I heard Chloe speak. ‘No,’ she piped, ‘that’s my sister Emily. She’s in the shed.’
The shed was really a stable about one hundred metres from the house. A wind buffeted us as we made our way across the yard with a torch. I was anxious. Many years ago I met a woman who claimed to have a portion of Hitler’s jawbone – complete with some piece of paperwork or other that verified it – but from the moment I stepped into her stinking, ramshackle entrance hall I knew she was just a lonely madwoman with a house full of junk. That I fell for it has long been a source of embarrassment for me, but in my business one needed to check all reasonable leads. Would this perhaps be the same? Or even worse?
Angola unbolted the massive door and swung it open. The stable was dimly lit. Pausing on the threshold, I could smell wet hay and the sweat of animals. I knew the rest of the family were standing at the kitchen window, watching to see what I, a stranger, would make of their daughter. After the other daughter Chloe had spoken up at the dinner table, there had been a heated discussion of money, of fame and reality TV that I did my best to dampen while still allowing them enough enthusiasm to show me their curious prize.
I stepped inside. Angola followed and closed the door behind me. Something stirred in a far corner, I heard a clank of chain. Angola brushed past me and went to another door on the other side of the stable. He paused with his hand on the wooden knob. ‘You ready?’
I nodded. By this time my heart was hammering. The miraculous has a smell, and this Godforsaken place was ripe with it. Angola opened the door and went in. Another rustle of chain, the swish of straw. Murmured words, kindly words. He beckoned me over. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said, then to his daughter, ‘This is Mr Shaw, love.’
I said hello and drifted into the room, which was spacious, decorated like any 14-year-old girl’s room: posters of pop stars, family photographs, drawings of horses. The girl, Emily was sitting on a low bed placed along one wall. She was slight, pretty, with long brown hair and large eyes. She looked momentarily startled, but quickly recovered, said good evening and smiled. It was clear we had interrupted her reading a book; it was placed face-down on the bed next to her. Then I saw the iron hoop around her ankle and the short chain attached at the other end to the bed frame. Emily noticed me staring at it and shrugged. Angola seemed nervous and asked her if she might show me her trick.
‘It’s not a trick, Pa,’ she admonished.
Angola unlocked the iron hoop. ‘Well. You know what I mean, love.’
Emily rolled her eyes.
Angola dropped the key to her bolt into his coat pocket and stepped back. He offered me an apologetic smile. ‘Teenagers, eh?’
Emily swung around until both legs hung over the edge of her bed. Angola and I waited by the door. Horses moved around nervously in their stalls nearby.
‘Are you sure, Pa?’
‘But you said that –’
‘Emily. This man might be able to help us.’
And after a few minutes, it happened, as Angola had said it would. Almost imperceptibly, Emily began to levitate from the bed with no apparent exertion. The space between the hem of her dress and the rumpled bed expanded. Her face wore the beatific expression of one rapt in an interior activity like, say, listening to a favourite piece of music or contemplating a scene of sublime beauty. The entire thing happened in silence. When at last I could speak, I asked Angola how long she had been doing this.
‘Oh, only two months or so. Not long.’ It was clear that, behind his anxiety over what was happening to his daughter, he was very proud.
Meanwhile, Emily rose higher and higher. After several minutes, she put out a hand to prevent her head bumping against the high ceiling. Gently she shoved herself off, whereupon she drifted down and across the room before again floating to the ceiling. Finally, Angola took a length of rope, flung up it to his daughter and hauled her down to the floor, as one might a boat to a pier.
He secured Emily to her bed with the iron bolt. They exchanged tender words. He thanked her, kissed her on the forehead. We left the barn. Then he turned to me with an avaricious gleam in his eye, and I knew instantly what I had to do.
In the middle of the night, when I was certain the family was asleep, I eased the ring of keys from the hook by the kitchen door and crept out of the house.
Emily didn’t seem surprised to see me standing in her room. I sensed her looking at me as soon as I unlocked her door, but she said nothing, uttered not a sound. It was so quiet out there in the country I could hear her breathing in the gloom. I crouched by her bed and told her not to be afraid and she nodded as if she had known all along – known even before I did – what I intended to do. Some girls were like that. I unlocked the iron clasp from her bony ankle, gave her a moment to put a robe over her pyjamas, then lifted her from the bed and carried her outside.
My shoes crunched on the gravel driveway. I registered the familiar pleasing sensation of a girl’s warm and trusting breath on my neck, a cheek bumping against my shoulder. I had intended to carry her far beyond the edge of the property, but she was heavier than I anticipated – or I older and wearier – and I was compelled to put her down in the driveway seventy or so metres from the house. The girl uttered a startled laugh, wobbled, then grabbed my sleeve as if momentarily unbalanced on a beam.
I held her by her wrist and we stood there for several seconds staring at each other in silence.
‘I’m scared,’ she whispered.
‘I know. But there is no need to be.’
The moon was high and full. By its light I saw the silvery outline of her jaw, tendrils of her hair waving in the breeze. Experimentally, I loosened my grip on her wrist and we stood there in the driveway, the girl and I, for a few seconds longer until she, too, let go of my sleeve.
I sensed animals moving around us in the darkness, the soft and furry blink of their eyes. Emily smoothed her knotty hair and looked around. For a second I feared she would run or cry out for help but, instead, she looked at me and smiled. ‘Good-bye,’ she said.
Gradually, she rose into the air as she had done several hours earlier and the sight of it thrilled me anew. Her knobbly knees floated past my face and I realised I was weeping. She stifled a giggle with a hand across her mouth, then relaxed and held out her arms and it seemed to me that she was not rising so much as the earth on which I stood was falling away beneath her feet. She waved. By the time lights came on in the house and I heard angry voices, the girl was already out of reach, floating above a nearby stand of gum trees.
Angola and his family ran up behind me with mouths full of oaths, but instead of escaping, as I should have done, I closed my eyes to better imagine the world from the girl’s new height. I wondered if she saw trees in the distance, the yellow gravel of a driveway. Did she hear her father crying out and sense the stars close at hand, the vast and ancient universe into which she was being drawn? Far below, did she make out a man beating another man over and over with his fists, and hear a dog yapping at the commotion? People clawing at each other, throwing up their hands, shrieking?
Finally, when her family below fell silent and looked skyward, each of their faces glowed strangely and were so small they might have been coins on a road as, free at last, she disappeared from sight.
Photograph by Suicine