In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Katerina Gibson’s ‘Fertile Soil’ is the winning entry from the Pacific.
Summer had come and with it some strange encounters around the city. At work, or at conferences, on the train, in the corridors before my night class, strangers would greet me, asking after me like a long lost cousin. In one week, an old man at the library said I was looking healthy and asked how I was settling in, and the next day a woman running down the street with a lapel bouncing off her sternum and a fitted skirt stopped when she saw me. She told me she couldn’t stop, she was running late, but we’d catch up soon, then she took a large bite of the wrap she was clutching and cried: God, the chicken is so dry! Don’t go to that café! and ran off again as best she could with her the top half of her legs shellacked together. That very afternoon, what looked like two university students on the opposite platform waved with an enthusiasm I thought was passé for young people. I looked around to check no one was behind me, then turned hoping to get a better look at them, but a train pulled up, obscuring their particulars, and when it passed they were gone.
This is how these sort of things went down. Never wanting to be rude, when I encountered these people, I met them with the same level of familiarity, asking how they were, what they’d been up to, agreeing, in our sweaty, soiled clothes, how oppressive the humidity was, swearing that the summers were getting worse, and of course they were.
Once, at a dinner party, I was having a lovely conversation with a young man – which is to say younger than me, although I am not old myself – only for me to realise he thought we’d met before. He approached me and offered a glass of wine made from a sort of grape that was, he told me, found only in one village in Chile. I took the wine gladly, it was dry and delicious, and he began describing a type of tree that was growing in the front yard of the house we were in. He asked me first if I knew what type of tree it was, and when I didn’t he told me how it was brought here on the First Fleet. There were, he said, eleven boats in the First Fleet, including three store ships of food, botanicals and animals – mares, cows, sheep and other ungulate that would decimate the soil and under forest on the continent. He began to explain the nature of the tree, how it needed more consistent and sparse rain, and a crisper atmosphere, how, in the upkeep and farming of the plant, it took up much more resources than needed in its indigenous circumstances, and was most probably responsible for the destruction of many native species itself. But, after many decades of colonisation as an invasive species, he said, the tree had naturalised. It had, he said, even adapted to the subtropical summer floods and dry soil in the north half of the country we occupied – soil sapped of nutrients by the likes of the very sort of plants and animals he was talking about. Did I know this? When I said I did not know this, he nodded solemnly and looked out the window.
I became suddenly self-conscious of the food I’d eaten that day, fish that was not native to the area and a strange sort of broccoli my husband found at a supermarket that looked like an acid trip. I thought of this food and retroactively stepped my way through the process of it being farmed and packaged and distributed to me, and on top of this an image become superimposed: a vision of the view from my kitchen window, of the mango tree in the backyard, sunburnt fruit rotten on the ground, seeds that fruit bats, shrieking in gluttonous delight, had discarded in the night.
How do you think, he said, we are supposed to become naturalised? I didn’t answer as I didn’t know what to say, and stood there staring likewise out the window. He shook his head as if waking himself from a daze and said: But I have not shown you what I’ve been working on, and then pulled out his phone. He began to flip through pictures of large metal sculptures that appeared, despite their obvious solidness, to be moving – their shining surfaces undulating. At once resembling a tree or bush, and then, at other times, a wave cresting, a speaker throbbing, and a body – his body, it looked like – trying to escape, his beard, nose, a bouquet of elbows. They were without hinges or corner; they appeared completely smooth. I hope, he said, this will explain my absence to this sort of thing in the future. He would like to be working on it right now, but, Reilly – Reilly was our host – had made him come. He pouted, and I don’t think it was an affectation; he seemed unaware of how childish it made him look. I laughed and he smiled at me, inquisitive, keen to get in on the joke. But I only laughed again and asked what his sculpture meant.
That’s just the thing, he said, at first he didn’t know. For the longest time, he had been feeling something – a dread that came to him, in the middle of autumn. He paused and looked unsure of how to go on. I am unsure how to go on, he said. It was like, he said, some sort of melancholy, from nowhere. He knew that he was falling into depression, but couldn’t identify its cause. His life was going as well as it could’ve been, he had not been going through a breakup or some other personal tectonic shift – he did not feel trapped or stale in routine or anything. One day, he just lost the will to live. He tried, he said, very hard to both stop this depression and to identify its cause. He exercised with more vigour, ate only the freshest organic food and began to see a therapist, a sort of stern hippie, he said, as way of an explanation, who required of him a robust course of therapy. He once woke, he said, at the end of a session of hypnotherapy, with the therapist assuring him that it was perfectly normal and that’s why there were plastic covers on the chairs. He grinned. He had pissed himself, everywhere, he said, everywhere. He walked home, socks sopping up the puddles of piss collected in his shoes. He’d had to buy new shoes, he said, pointing. The shoes he was wearing did look very new. But still, he said, nothing. Nothing? I said, you didn’t find out why you pissed yourself? Oh, he said, he’d drunk two litres of coconut water before the session. It wasn’t, he continued, until well into a month of this feeling, when his mother called him to wish him a happy birthday, and as an afterthought, said he’d reached the age his father had been when he died.
A coolness spread through my mouth, although whether it was the Chilean wine or sadness for that young man, I didn’t know. I attempted to say with a straight voice, without making his grief mine, I was sorry for his loss, but he waved me off, and said, flippantly, so that’s what it’s been about. Pardon? I asked. He spun his hand around, as if I had failed to grasp some mechanics he was explaining, my work, he said. Oh, I said, you are mourning your father. No, he said, I have been trying to forgive him. But oh – he said this as if remembering something very urgent – you will not say I showed them to you, will you? The pictures? Reilly would be very mad at me, something about disclosure. You won’t tell him, will you? Of course not, I said, and asked him when his exhibition was. Two months away, you will come, won’t you? he said. I nodded, smiled and again said, of course. It fell silent between us while he poured himself a glass of wine, and I asked him to forgive me, but what was his name?
At this point the young man looked up from his pouring, for a second I saw his face: devastated. But we’ve met, he said, as his wine glass filled to the brim. I thought, he said – but then his glass overpoured, and, although I tried to apologise, I saw that tears had welled in the corner of his eyes. He then, realising a great quantity of his wine had spilt down his front, onto the floor, said, oh God what a mess, and ran off. He left not to the kitchen, but in the direction of the front door, and I didn’t see the young man again.
It was instances like this that brought on me a peculiar dawning, or feeling, of erasure, like the city was conspiring against me. As if the weather, threatening forty degrees for three weeks without reprieve, was causing a form of heatstroke that was affecting my short term memory. My connections to other people seemed tenuous, began to make less and less sense. For days I fretted over what was causing my disservice to so many people. What had happened that I couldn’t remember that sensitive young man? What was making me forget the life details of acquaintances, or in fact the acquaintances themselves? And still the encounters went on: an old friend texted to say it was lovely running into me, my doctor told me I was already up to date with my pap smear, and when I went into a bookstore on a whim one afternoon, the bookseller smiled and said, back so soon.
I began to fear I was developing early onset Alzheimer’s, until I opened that door one afternoon and saw her, chest heaving, rummaging through a backpack. It was at a barbeque. As most parties are in summer, in the culmination of the year, alcoholism ran rampant, and the day-to-day obligations of routine, of work, of exercise, of appointments, were discarded for the condensation collecting on the outside of a bottle. The time of year, when the sun goes down, but the heat never lets up, nor the mosquitoes. The days bleed one day into the next, morphing into one another. Which is to say, I cannot point now, precisely, to which door it was. Which party, or whose house I was in when the doorbell rang.
I was the only person in the kitchen, all the other guests had retreated to the back deck. I opened the catch and knew immediately, in a sigh of relief, it was not me, but the young man and many others strangers like him that were mistaken. I greeted myself with a small smile.
I worried then that I’d perhaps ruined a budding romance between the stranger and the woman who stood before me.
Hi – urgh, she said, sorry, she was just looking for the wine she brought. I know it’s in here, she said. She walked in while still looking through her backpack, dropping the helmet under her arm. Shit, she said. I leant over to scoop it up and hand it to her; she looked up briefly and smiled. Thank you, she said, oh, there it – but then she looked back up, the information of my face processing.
I smiled and she laughed nervously. Oh wow, she said. We continued to stare at one another, smiling. The lip of her backpack flopped open between us.
Everyone is on the deck, in the yard, if you want to –
Yes, she said, I suppose. I suppose we should do that.
I suppose so. Here let me – I reached out for the bottle and she handed me her helmet. Oh –
Oh no, I meant, and she swapped the two objects and laughed again. Okay, out on the deck.
With the wine my hands, I let her dump her backpack on a kitchen stool.
What’s your name? I said.
Oh god –
Oh no, she said, it’s short for Breanna, if that helps.
It did, I said, mine’s not short for anything. Then we both went out on the deck, into the backyard, where the hosts said, Ah! Anna, you’re here, and hugged her.
My husband was not there that night and consequently he didn’t know, as I never told him – I didn’t know how to tell him – about Anna, not at first. Which is to say I don’t know precisely when, or if, he knew there were two of us. Although we live in a small city, and therefore nothing stays a secret long. I can guess he heard strange rumours, but it’s equally likely that he met her in much the same fashion I did, in that part of the summer, the sun sinking perpetually over another tsk of a beer opening.
I have wondered, since I moved inland, west, up the Great Dividing Range to a city isolated by its landscape, what it was like when he met her. Did he mistake her for me that first encounter? Greeting her with a hug and, You decided to come! Her, in politeness, going along with it. Or did he double take and laugh nervously, like she had to me.
Perhaps he is not even sure about when it is they first encountered one another, and our replacement was smooth – hinge-less, like the young man’s sculptures. I do not know specifically when, but I am certain in the kitchen that morning, he thought she was me.
The day after the party I called my mother, who seemed worried I was experiencing a mental break, and assured me that she had ‘flesh birthed’ me, and there was definitely no other baby involved. She offered to send me a recording of the birth, and then became offended when I declined. But, she said, she’d just had it digitised. Birthing, she said, is the closest we can experience to magic in this day and age, where technology has weeded it out. She then described to me the precise contents of her lunch – a banana smoothie and an egg sandwich made with whole grain bread she’d baked that morning. Which reminded her – the egg sandwich – of the texture of my placenta. Her placenta, our placenta, she said, which she’d eaten shortly after my birth. Had she ever told me that before? Yes, I said, she’d mentioned it a few times. She then began to rhapsodise about her sacred passage, at which point I feigned being late for something and hung up.
Not long after this phone call things in my house began to move or be replaced by other things that were not my own. Small, innocuous things. For instance: in my office, where there had been a small succulent on my desk, a pink stone paperweight took up residence; I couldn’t find the jeans I wore regularly, and the dishes in the cupboard one day appeared almost entirely identical but a shade bluer. I asked my husband what happened to the dishes and he claimed he had no idea what I was talking about, although, he said, I was fiddling around down there yesterday. On the fridge a recent picture of the both of us appeared to be taken from a slightly different angle.
One morning I came across bar of apricot-scented soap in the shower next to my husband’s charcoal one. I went for a walk to clear my mind. It was bright morning, a week or so into the new year. The sun already causing licks of heat to distort the air above roofs and bitumen. I was just finishing my walk, climbing up from our back garden which sloped into the gully. It’s a steep hill, and I stopped to take shade under a deflowered jacaranda, when I heard the unmistakable sound of me and my husband having sex.
I looked up through the kitchen window and saw a back, my back, pressing up against the glass, one of my husband’s hands gripped around my waist. I stood there sweating, watching them go at it – my husband thrusting enthusiastically – and experienced a strange hallucinatory dizziness as the heat went to my head.
I didn’t make a move then, to storm in and stop them, scream bloody murder like I might have if it were another women. I sat there entranced; they were beautiful to watch. The woman in the kitchen was, to her credit, much more flexible than me. One leg was bent beneath her so she was propped up on the table in a side kneel, while the other was lifted above my husband’s shoulder, her chest turned toward the celling. Throughout the course of their fucking, she did not seem to tire, nor did she stop mid-operation to reposition from a cramp. This, of all things, is why I cannot understand why my husband didn’t know he was engaging in an extramarital activity.
After they finished, disappearing from the window, I walked in through the back door and poured myself a glass of water. I went in a haze to our bedroom, where my husband was lounging naked on the sheets, the window wide open, curtain blowing. He looked up at me with a lazy satisfied smile. His penis lay limp and wet. Why are you wearing so many clothes, he said. Come here. I went over to him, and he took the glass out of my hands, pulled me onto the bed, and asked me if I wanted to go have lunch at that café we went to the weekend before, what was it called? From the bed, the curtain billowed out, and I saw, briefly, the moon out in the mid-morning, almost full, like a worn down coin, pale against the blue sky. I can only guess he believed I’d recently taken up yoga.
From then the things in my house were replaced with more frequency and audaciousness: my books, underwear, the microwave – I sat down on the couch one evening, and, although it looked precisely the same, I knew I had never sat on that couch before. Good friends called and alluded to dinners or phone conversations I didn’t remember having. I turned up to visit my mother one day, she looked confused, shook her head, the strips of grey hair that grew at her temples twitching like whiskers, and said, but you came over yesterday.
And so on and on it went; my plants grew strange flowers, my bookshelf was alphabetised. I came into work one morning and my boss asked what the hell I was doing there. One evening, I was running late to my night class and ran a red light, and then from my car to the classroom. But when I stopped to catch my breath outside the building, I saw, through the window, in my regular seat, I was already there, hunched over, scribbling in my notebook.
I went back to my car. The sky had darkened prematurely with large clouds, and as I drove the heat broke in a large storm. I thought about the washing on the line, then began to cry. I’d become so sensitive; I cried over wet laundry. I found, as I continued to drive around the city I’d lived in my whole life, I no longer recognised it. The tears dried up. I then remembered it was the date of the young man’s exhibition and made a decisive left turn.
The first thing I saw when I entered the gallery was the sculpture he’d shown me on his phone, even larger than I was expecting, dazzling in the way it reflected the gallery lights. On the wall there was a contextualising blurb. The work was called Self Portrait. Below it was a picture of the young man. I knew it was him, although the picture looked impossibly faded with age; he had his exact beard and green eyes, the slope of his nose and wide shoulders. He was holding a naked baby, both of them looking up at the camera.
Underneath the picture was the caption: ‘My father and me 1992’.
I turned around and left, then sat in the car for a long time, my head in my hands.
When I got home that evening, I unlocked the door to the feeling I’d already been home. I walked into the bedroom where Anna stood, folding laundry, rain hammering against the window.
Oh, she said, frowning, you’re still here.
Yes, I said, it seems I am. There was a pause when we looked at each other like the first time we met, although neither of us smiled. Just let me get a few things, I said, and collected as much as I could, although in truth there was almost nothing – a singlet, a bag, a small, ornamental incense holder – and left without saying goodbye to my husband.
I don’t know precisely how much time passed from when I met Anna to when I left, although I remember the moon was almost full again like it was the time I lay in bed, in faux post-coital with my husband. I remember, because I stopped in the middle of the night after I’d driven from my old city to this new one and looked up at the moon. I’d parked in front of a lake or large pond, which struck me as odd – a body of water residing so far up the Great Dividing Range. Shouldn’t it, I thought, have overflowed, spilled out to the landscape beneath?
The night sky had a fine layer of cloud and the moon emanated a glow like a halo, on the edges of which a rainbow hinted. There was something wrong about the scene of the lake, a green bridge across it, the mountains cascading in the background. I sat in the car, the last of my belongings strewn across the back seat, trying to understand why I’d driven not south along the east coast interstate to the next capital – a beach side one, more populace – but west, inward. Something felt increasingly off-kilter. I wound down the window as if to have a cigarette, although I hadn’t smoked in years, but still couldn’t shake the feeling, so sat there uneasy until the stress and exhaustion of the day took me to sleep.
It’s only now I understand what was wrong with the image: the moon, so bright in the sky, had no twin reflected in the black water. Its surface remained obsidian – impenetrable.
I’ve taken up residence in a cheap hotel named after the English botanist who ‘discovered’ and subsequently colonised the city for its rich, fertile soil. He is responsible, I think, for the city’s ongoing obsession with gardens. With planting, every year, flowers of foreign colours and temperament.
By day I walk the streets, wandering and wondering what has brought me here, and what it is I am meant to do with myself. It took me a while to understand what about the city felt like déjà vu, until one day, walking under the trees that infamously line the city streets, I recognised them. Their bright leaves and wide, intricate trunk – they were the same trees as the one in the front garden of Reilly’s house. The one the young man had described the history of to me so thoroughly. Elated with recognition, I rushed back to the hotel to confirm this with the receptionist, but he only frowned at me over his glasses. He was the rare type of man who had a fantastic balding head of hair; although there was a two inches of it that stood defiantly upward, I could see directly through it to the hospital green walls. He was afraid, he said, I’d been gravely misinformed. Those trees, he said, were in fact introduced in 1822, by way of China. He knew this, he said, because they were introduced by the very man of whom the hotel I was staying at was named after. The trees were still considered, the receptionist said, one of his greatest botanical discoveries. Although, he added conspiratorially, they’d existed in Asia for millennia. They were not, he was quick to inform me, naturalised. The trees remain an invasive species. Their roots, he said, removing his glasses and cleaning them with a small cloth, curl deep into the soil, greedy for sustenance; they remain a great threat to native species – eucalyptus and koalas, predominately. Native birds, too, tend to avoid the area, he added. Despite this, he said, replacing his glasses, they are impossible to get rid of because a great many of the locals fear they would lose their livelihood if the council were to do so. I frowned, and he shrugged, and said, tourism. Perhaps, he said sympathetically, I was mistaken.
I returned to my room upstairs, and drew the curtain open. A frenzy of lorikeets emanated from two of the trees below. Although their screeching drowned out ambient street nose, among the dense leaves, I couldn’t spot a single bird. The sun set the city in orange.
Walking each day, it’s hard to ignore the streets are extremely wide, even in the city centre – as wide as they would’ve been when horses pulled carriages though them. Each day, increasingly, I understand the city as existing as a veneer. Its insistence on foreign beauty in its various museums, mementos, statues – not on the native land and people, but to the accomplishments of the settlers, of train lines built and places conquered – as an ongoing ode to colonisation.
Perhaps all this is why the place has an eerie disposition, nothing is as it should be, and, therefore, it feels as if anything could happen – like snow might start falling mid-summer. As if the plants craved the temperament of their homeland and filled the city with longing.
I am in constant grief, as if a piece of the place has broken off and become lodged in my throat. I cannot concentrate, and the summer, now almost always in a state of humidity on the cusp of rain, has made me likewise constantly wet.
I’m not so sure how long I can sustain this state of mourning. I don’t believe I want to stay here, but something is preventing me from leaving. It’s not a place where I feel at ease, but I can’t deny it’s a very friendly town. Since coming here, strangers have stopped to ask me how I am. They wave from their cars. The shop attendant calls me darling, and tells me about his son’s football game, to not come too close, his breath is terrible, he’s getting an abscess removed later that day.
Just last week, I was walking though one of the gardens, the flowers long dead, when a woman with a pram wearing a complicated head wrap called out to me. Anne! she said, and although this is not quite my name, I turned around. Maryanne! She came as quickly as she could, curving through the labyrinth of the garden. How are you? she said, almost yelling over her screaming toddler.
Is he alright? I asked, peering into the pram.
Oh never mind him. Yesterday, she said, an edge to her voice, he began to cry – and here two streams of water tracked down her own face – because, she sniffed, he didn’t like the texture of tomatoes. But, anyway, the woman rocked the pram back and forth, and wiped the water off her face. We’re getting a sitter for our house warming. I’ve been meaning to get in contact with you. Day after tomorrow. Here, she said, and pulled out a piece of paper and pen where she scribbled down details, thrust it onto me, and, with a harassed looking wave, shot off again.
As I climbed up the stairs to the stranger’s apartment, the most unusual feeling came over me. I began to feel as if I’d walked this way before. As if, despite knowing I hadn’t met anyone at the party, I was about to catch up with old friends. When I rang the doorbell a man I’d never met answered it, but I knew, as I looked at him, already, the smell of his neck, the taste of him.
An odd lightness overcame me, like I was finally adjusting to the altitude of the place. I felt, as I rubbed my thumb over my fingertips, as if their prints would dissolve.
Photograph © Karel Seidl