Translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce

 

If she’d swerved any harder, she would have crashed right into the lake. In the eerie twilight, the deer seemed to come out of nowhere, darting silently into the road. Of course she’d been startled. And for a few seconds all she’d wanted was to run – throw caution to the wind, shake off gravity, be gone.

In recent years, she’d watch students bent over their desks, pens softly scratching, and a scene from the nature channel would float into her mind. A herd of elk in long grass, nestled meekly against one another. She had no idea how they grew or reproduced but, ever since that programme, thought of them often. Their chestnut fur and affection for each other. How they were wary by nature, and never spoke – at least not that humans could hear – and liked to chew on leaves. They probably had fleas, there was no way around that; every animal does. But, then again, maybe none of this was true. Maybe it was all wrong. It wasn’t based on anything, and biology had never been her strong point.

No one ever broke the rules. Hushed chatter rose from the desks, occasionally crescendoing into the crash of an ocean wave, or the clamour of a wet market. Sometimes a question would leave the class in deathly silence. Sometimes an eager voice would pipe up and shatter it.

‘I don’t think things are as bad as the protagonist makes out.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘The narrator is so fixated on her own suffering, it’s way too heavy-handed. The novel opens with, “Fear torments me, making me almost lose my mind.” Right from the start, it’s just one crazy woman ranting to herself.’

‘But the tone is very detached. What’s your basis for calling it heavy-handed?’

‘I actually like the victim,’ someone else chimed in. ‘Maybe she enjoys the misery. Do you think it’s easy to write from a victim’s perspective?’

‘It’s an easy way to win sympathy from a reader.’

Bursts of laughter, sighs, some students nodding, others shaking their heads.

A brief debate. Whispers over the desks from those who didn’t participate. She waved her hands to quiet them, pressing lightly
on the air, as though conducting an orchestra.

‘Do we have to rush to a conclusion? Are there clear answers, or could it be that the ending is left open to interpretation?’

She liked talking to them. Their voices filled the classroom, rising and falling like bouncing cicadas.

‘But is it so difficult just to say what happened? Why does it have to be so ambiguous?’ said one student.

‘This is why I hate metafiction,’ said another, picking up her books and hugging them to her chest as she walked out. ‘It’s too hard to understand.’

Even the sighs and complaints sounded like the low moan of a plucked string.

There was a telecom tower outside the classroom window. Through the slits in the blinds, it looked small and far away, like a tiny decorative sticker that kept sliding into her line of vision. When the pollution was bad, it was hardly visible, but in the evenings, driving home along the expressway, she could see it clearly in the distance, tip flashing boldly. An inland lighthouse, high above the sea of lights below, alone and cheerless in its corner of the night sky.

Our lives depend on it, she’d think to herself, every so often. Imagine that. Without it we’d be so much lonelier. But the tower itself didn’t know. It sent out hundreds of thousands of messages, every single day, and it had no idea.

For a long time, she’d been careful to steer clear of trouble at work. She was thirty-five and had held her position at the university for four years, but still felt like a baby just learning to crawl. The most she ever spoke was in the classroom. And sometimes she wondered what those docile young elk took away from her classes. Another day rolled past, and what had she said? Had she been careful enough? Could someone have misinterpreted her words? Had she been true to herself ? She’d been heeding these warnings since her very first day.

‘They’re very young. They may look like adults, but inside they’re still children. In many ways, they don’t yet know right from wrong, or understand the potential consequences of their actions. As their teachers, we have to be extremely careful what we say.’

This was said so seriously, she almost wanted to laugh. But no one else in the room seemed to find it amusing. Several teaching contracts had expired, and would not be renewed. This was announced at the meeting. Announced, not discussed: the committee had made its decision. Very little was said. Items were read aloud and token comments were added, as usual. It was a routine affair, during which no one would object and nothing would change.

The colleague beside her sighed softly. She heard him shift closer. ‘Better not go making problems round here,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t be like them. Sued, fired . . . didn’t you start at the same time as her? Did you know her?’

She said that she wasn’t sure. Maybe in passing.

At the front, the chair was still giving his earnest speech.

‘We must respect others, be mindful of not interfering where we don’t belong. You need to be vigilant, because your students are sensitive, and so are we. Very, very sensitive.’

She flipped through the meeting notes on her lap.

A slogan from the government’s public service department was printed along the bottom of the last page: in service to our country and its people.

Her parents had also been public servants. Her mother, a primary school teacher, and her father, a primary school headmaster. From time to time, the same slogan had appeared in their house, emblazoned on a new mug or towel or umbrella or fountain pen or folder; souvenirs from training courses her parents had attended during the school holidays. She’d never thought much of it. The umbrellas would break, the towels would get mouldy, the mugs would smash. Now, for the first time, she felt like the sentence was trapped in her chest, as hard and unyielding as a stone.

‘Remember: it’s your job to be more sensitive than they are.’

 

I am very sensitive, she thought. It was a feeling like a thorn buried in her forehead, ready to work its way out through the corner of her mouth and pop the bubbles of chat and laughter that hung in the air. She avoided it carefully, wary of snags, but still felt uncertain. Most days, she parked under a shady tree; most days, she sat there in the driver’s seat, staring into space. Windows rolled down and the world around her surging like a sea. But she was inland, all was still. No waves. A light breeze blew through the car park lot, rippling the surface of the biology department’s fish pond.

She had an excellent memory. She could churn out names, dates and author biographies without thinking, and would write them in long lines across the whiteboard. It intimidated people. Perhaps it was even too excellent a memory, because everything she heard stayed with her. It took a long time for her to let things go.

‘We all have to learn to forget what isn’t worth remembering,’ said her mother.

‘All I have is a pile of things I need to remember,’ she replied.

She reminded her mother, who was killing a fish, that the fish was already dead; that she couldn’t kill it twice.

‘Don’t correct me,’ said her mother, slicing open the belly and scraping away the innards. When she was little, she remembered asking why fish couldn’t close their eyes. Her mother had said
that fish saw everything, and that was why eating them made you clever.

‘In the end, aren’t we all just fish on someone’s chopping board?’

‘Go back to your books!’ snapped her mother. ‘You must have better things to do. Make yourself useful!’

She went onto the balcony to keep her father company. He was smoking, looking out on the familiar view, and his face lit up at the sight of her. There was a Chinese primary school on the hill opposite, producing intermittent bursts of clarinet music. Her mother claimed to have heard sparrows that were more rousing, but today she liked it. Every so often, names were called out over the speakers. Huang Weixing, please report to the office. Or: Ye Yunxin, Ye Yunxin, where are you? And everyone in the surrounding area would hear these names and know that these people were being looked for. She imagined a teacher standing before a rank of students, yelling into a megaphone. She imagined those Chinese schoolchildren lined up as straight and orderly as soldiers. A tiny Communist Party – that’s what she and her classmates at the convent used to say. She didn’t know any of the Chinese kids. They were just voices floating down the hill, sometimes drowned out by the shrieks of nearby children, or the sound of the television. She didn’t know why she’d been so resistant to becoming a primary school teacher; it would have been much simpler than her current job. So much more relaxed.

‘If they won’t behave, then teach them a lesson,’ said her father, solemnly imparting his wisdom. ‘Make an example of someone. Don’t be soft. Don’t let them think you’re a pushover.’

At the dinner table, they talked about family. About her cousins, who were around her age. Which ones were doing well, which ones were wasting their lives, which ones were beyond all hope.

‘She won’t even see her siblings,’ said her mother. ‘Before it was bad, but this is a whole new level. Always fighting with her bosses, can’t hold down a job.’

‘People like that never get far,’ said her father. ‘They specialise in biting the hand that feeds them.’

She hadn’t seen these relatives for a very long time. When they were mentioned, she had only the faintest impression of who they were, like fragments from an old dream. Her parents acted surprised by her forgetfulness, mystified that she couldn’t recall her childhood playmates, but she’d left her Chinese primary school before finishing; her parents had been posted somewhere else and she’d had to transfer. Then they’d sent her to an all-girls convent for secondary school, and the three of them drifted apart from the rest of the family. She and her cousins had grown up to be very different people. Still, she struggled to imagine them as either these smug success stories or abject failures.

‘How do you know all this,’ she asked. ‘Who told you?’

‘People talk.’

She thought of one summer holiday when she was a child. At her grandmother’s house, gathered on the shore with some of the cousins, watching her uncle plunge into the water. Into that big, deep lake. People were casting fishing nets off floating platforms, marking them out with rows of tightly bound bamboo, dividing the surface of the lake into little kingdoms. Her younger cousins said her uncle could dive and fix the nets underwater. He tied a thick rope around his waist and jumped. She went to the adults standing guard, and asked when he would come back up. They said she had to wait and see.

She crouched at the edge of the water, and a head suddenly broke the surface. Ripples erupted from the centre of the lake, radiating in big, widening circles that sank into the wet mud of the shoreline. She wasn’t sure which she’d seen first: the ripples or the person.

‘Your uncle has incredible stamina,’ the adults said, using the English word. ‘Fixing the nets is no mean feat; he has to hold his breath, keep his eyes open to find the holes, and then stitch them back together. He has to make sure he has enough air for all that time.’

The sun was so bright that afternoon it made her dizzy. She lost count of how many times her uncle came up for air. Each time he surfaced, he opened his mouth wide to the sky, as if trying to inhale the clouds.

She asked why they didn’t just pull the nets in, and an older cousin told her it was too difficult, because they were big and heavy, with ropes and nails fixing them in place. Dragging them in would only tear more holes.

 

Talking too much was risky, and so she talked very little. She limited herself to explanations; the necessary clarifications. In the classroom with her elk was the only place she was calmer. She liked their energy and intelligence. Their naivety. She liked how respectful they were. Liked that they asked questions and paid attention to her answers. They were very similar to her, she discovered: fond of leisure, averse to pressure. She felt less conflicted when she was around them.

If you asked them who they admired, they’d say Maugham, Carver, Tolkien, Harry Potter. No one mentioned Mann, Hemingway, Faulkner or Woolf. If you asked why, they’d make faces.

‘Hemingway’s dialogue is all over the place and I don’t understand it,’ they said.

‘Too many new words, too many characters. The relationships are so confusing.’

If she discounted the silent ones and painted each of those ringing questions, hypotheses, conclusions and retorts a different colour, the classroom became a vivid tapestry. She was not displeased, to have woven such a scene. Who knew whether she would have had the opportunity anywhere else. Sometimes, she imagined they were animals calling to one another in a forest, each voice coming from its own shadowy location in the trees. She tried to coax out the shyer ones. First, of course, they had to be allowed to listen quietly. But they couldn’t be beautiful if they let themselves merge into the same colour as the leaves.

Sometimes, the debates were so engrossing that she forgot those initial urgings to be cautious. Forgot how she used to think of herself as the wind, working invisibly in the background, conducting other people’s performances. The students had different accents when they spoke English. Indian and Chinese were the most common, Malay the least. There were only four Malays in the class, and three of them stayed as quiet as shadows. The only one who didn’t was an animated boy, slight but always stylishly dressed. On hot days, he turned up in tight-fitting shirts and Capri pants, wearing shoes with pointed toes. He gesticulated exuberantly when he spoke, making the silver bell on his charm bracelet tinkle.

He was from the drama department.

‘If this novel’s adapted for the stage, I was born to play the part of the beautiful young Venetian.’

Whistles, cheers, boos.

He fluffed his curls. ‘No one could be better suited.’

‘You’ve got black hair!’ There was a flurry of laughter. ‘And you’re already too old!’

She let him carry on. She doted on – was delighted to indulge – the students with obvious literary talent. She had the class read aloud from e.e. cummings’ ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’.

and / without breaking anything.

They were happy, and their enthusiasm made her feel young. The boy read aloud with such rhythm, almost as though he were singing. ‘I like “i like my body”, ’ he said. There were still ten minutes left of class, so she let him read it. She didn’t think too much about it. The poem was beautiful, and she couldn’t resist beautiful things.

As he read the electrifying lines, she was struck by his beauty. His eyelashes were very long, and fluttered along each sentence. If the poet were alive, she thought, he wouldn’t fault him. Notes launched from the tip of his tongue and thrilled along her spine. In places, his voice went as taut as a violin string; in others, it spread wide as an opened letter. She didn’t notice that students were leaving the classroom.

 

That was April, and April passed quickly. Wind stirred the dead leaves, making them march across the ground like an army. Every so often, she’d feel calm and steady, like a clump of firmly rooted plants, with no more need to worry about falling over. She weeded in the garden at home, and noticed soft, new shoots pushing through the earth. The cuttings she’d planted earlier in the year had quickly shrivelled, but there had been a spell of rain and they were struggling back to life.  Spiders spun webs between their stalks.

The school on the hill was closed for the holidays, and the bell echoed through the empty building. Mosquitoes and flies glided across the murky surface of its pond.

She went to invigilate an exam and spent the time staring out at the neatly mowed lawn. A flock of birds swooped past, close to the ground. She didn’t hear a thing, but saw their black outlines slashing a quick, jagged line through the sky, rising and falling, flapping on the wind, racing to catch insects before the rain. In the distance, a row of manicured trees, and the sky like a low-hanging cloud. The light dimmed, blurring the view, streaking the lawn a dusky yellow. The windows were like paintings.

Before the students arrived, she’d exchanged a few words with a Malay teacher. Purely out of habit, she’d found herself asking: ‘Where did you teach before coming here?’

The teacher had answered: ‘Malay College University.’

She’d been silent for a while, mulling over each word, as if counting grains of rice. She’d stared into the classroom, at the tables with their place numbers and the rows of empty chairs, and then couldn’t help adding: ‘When you were there, did you teach any Chinese students?’

The Malay teacher had avoided her eyes. After careful consideration, she’d replied, ‘No, the students were all Malay.’

She’d known perfectly well this would be the answer, and yet it shocked her. At the same time, she felt profoundly bored by this routine of asking things to which she knew the answers. Had the question bothered the woman? Perhaps she thought it was hostile, or deliberately provocative? It was impossible to tell; her reply had been perfectly measured. Her eyes gave nothing away. Tone appropriate, expression neutral. Calm as a millpond.

Then the Malay teacher had changed the subject, and started talking about the student who’d been caught cheating a few days before. He was being expelled, of course. There was a sad resignation to the woman’s tone. She had hummed and nodded in response, none of it meaning anything. She thought of this as she continued to stare out of the windows, watching as the rain beat down and the lawn turned hazy.

The air conditioning was very cold and she’d woken up too early. She yawned.

She’d always liked the Malay word air muka, used to mean ‘facial expression’, but literally meaning ‘surface of water’. The expression on your face, giving away the emotions beneath. Although in reality, perhaps a rippled surface said more about the wind outside.

Talking. There were appropriate topics, and others it was better not to mention. Some people never seemed to waver over which was which.

Things hidden underwater should not be exposed to air. People laughed, but the loudest never laughed with their eyes. Their eyes were as guarded as nutshells, and their expressions were like caves: you knew at a glance that nothing would slip past them. But knowing was one thing. Knowing could not protect against moments of weakness. For example, forgetting what was appropriate. Forgetting to be vigilant. Because once you forgot, once you’d crossed that line, no matter how you tried to fix things, you’d never make them right again. You’d become gradually more isolated. Up until now, the line had always been very clear.

She started to feel bored of herself, and bored of drawing the line.

 

May came, and the wind turned with the season. She had to remind herself to close the windows before she left work. One day she forgot, and arrived to find a shallow puddle of water in one corner of her office. This was how she discovered that her floor wasn’t level.

Damp seeped into the plaster of the walls. The air conditioning was set too low for rainy days. She hunched her shoulders and walked into his office. He was reading a letter and looked up sternly from his desk as she entered, just as he usually did.

‘Students tell me you’ve been promoting homosexuality in your classes?’ he said. ‘And that you made a Muslim student read a homosexual poem out loud?’

She would have defended herself, but then realised he must be referring to e.e. cummings, and even the thought of trying to explain made her feel so exhausted that in the end she said nothing at all.

‘This is an extremely serious matter,’ he continued. ‘I’ve received complaints. I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out for you, because you know what kind of place this is. There are people who prefer not to encounter these things. Naturally, you can teach whatever you like – and, well, I understand that literature shouldn’t be confused with politics . . . but now we have this problem, and it’s going to be tricky to explain to the higher-ups. To be frank, if it weren’t for the complaint, I’d be inclined to ignore it.’

She was silent.

‘One of your students uploaded a video of himself online. There he is, on the internet, reading this poem of yours, making a speech about coming out of the closet. You should take a look, count up the death threats in the comments . . .

‘Believe me, I wish they weren’t taking this so seriously. I don’t know what the committee will have to say about it. If they do decide to make a fuss – if they start picking through the egg yolk for bones, so to speak – they’re going to want an explanation. You’ll have to start thinking about what to say.’

Her preferred option was to say nothing and have the issue quietly fade away. There was a stack of documents on his desk, the top one branded with an intricate seal. The red stamped wax was like an omen, but one too mysterious for her to decipher.

Outside the office, it was so intensely quiet that she felt her eardrums might burst. She went to the canteen, where she met the Malay teacher from the day of the exam. They waved at one another, both smiling weakly. Did this woman know? And if she did, was she the kind of person who liked to make trouble and would go spreading it about?

She was distracted all afternoon, arriving ten minutes late to her class, teaching half-heartedly. Her brain was like a miswired electric circuit. She filled in paperwork incorrectly and had to start again, and then again.

At dinner time, the house filled with the blare of the television. Soap opera, adverts, news, another soap opera. Her parents looked listlessly at the screen, looked listlessly at her. Or perhaps they were perfectly contented, or mostly contented; she couldn’t tell. Then her father stopped watching television and insisted on talking, his eyes fixed on her, asserting his authority. She was his best audience. In these lonely, twilight years, she was the only remaining link between him and the outside world; between him and his fondly remembered days as a primary school headmaster. He didn’t approve of her mother’s approach to life. Her mother said people had to accept the hand they’d been dealt. That was just how things were. She’d been saying so for decades.

She helped her mother clear the plates, listening patiently to her as they washed up. Her mother’s solitary life: to her, life was always someone else’s story.

Everything about it. Someone. Else’s. Story.

When she was finally alone, she just sat there, loath to move. She couldn’t face getting into bed or cleaning her teeth, just wanted to carry on sitting. It occurred to her to look up that video online, and she started trying out keywords in her search bar. Eventually it appeared, but all she could see was the title, because the contents had been blocked.

That line: this video is a grave threat to the safety of others. it has been removed.

A shiver down her spine.

A week passed, then two. The shivers continued. She carried on going to and from her classroom, still without any thought to how she would explain herself to the committee. In any case, no one summoned her to a meeting. The matter was not mentioned. Had it passed? Been forgotten, just like that?  Been hushed up? Or perhaps they’d reached their decision, and no explanations were necessary.

Then, at the end of the month, she heard the news: the committee had dropped her case. They had turned their focus to a younger, more troublesome teacher, who had spoken to a class about the restrictions of the Islamic dress code for women, reportedly claiming it had become conflated with holiness, but was actually rooted in ownership of a woman’s body. This had antagonised a few Muslim students, who went to discuss it with the teacher in her office and subsequently pronounced her attitude ‘disrespectful of the Quran’. They then wrote a letter of complaint to the head of the department, and the accusations snowballed from there. Coincidentally, the teacher’s contract was just about to expire, and the department decided not to renew it.

 

It had been a busy day and she walked through the campus after class, following the slope, making her habitual detour to the biology department’s fish pond. June, and the flame trees were ablaze. She hadn’t seen the Malay boy from the drama department again.

Passing along a fluorescent-lit corridor, she came to an open door and couldn’t help pausing to look inside. The young Malay teacher was in the middle of packing, the floor strewn with boxes. At the sound of footsteps, she looked up. Waved, said hey.

And so she replied, still outside the door: hey. A twinge of guilt, because while she’d been revelling in her escape, she hadn’t given much thought to the reason why.

She hurried in, wanting to be friendly, eager to help, packing tape pulling, ripping, sticking. The woman didn’t object. Papers, books in English, books in Malay. A good number of books in Chinese, a few characters on their covers that she could still understand, although she stifled her curiosity. She packed the books into boxes. Then she came to the foil-stamped cover of the Quran, the centre of the storm, and froze. The woman took it from her and slid it nonchalantly into a box, continuing to stack reference books on top.

‘Take whatever you like,’ she said. ‘No one can see us. Even if they could, it would be fine. There’s no need to worry.’

The blinds were open and the lights were on. The woman took a pack of cigarettes from her handbag and offered her one, but she shook her head. Holding one in her mouth, the woman bent forward, her hair almost covering her face, and lit it. Tobacco smoke filled the room, irritating her nose and making her nauseous; she imagined her lungs filling with muck.

‘I’m very sorry. I heard what happened.’ Her words came out haltingly.

‘What did you hear?’

‘Well, I heard a bit,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t very clear.’

The woman looked at her curiously through the rising coils of smoke. Then she went to sit in her chair, kicking over a pile of magazines so that she could pull it closer to the desk.

‘It went like this,’ she said, bending forward to open a drawer on the bottom left-hand side of her desk: she mimed taking something out and then, hugging a ball of air to her chest, sat back up and arranged it on her knees. ‘They said that when I bent forward, that was against the Quran. It was wrong.’

‘Oh. Shit,’ she replied, not knowing what she was supposed to say. They had packed up seven or eight boxes.

‘We should go. This will take more than one day,’ said the woman, taking a final, decisive drag on her cigarette. ‘Although the sooner it’s done, the better.’

Even after the cigarette had been stubbed out and the ashtray emptied, the smell lingered and she felt it seeping into her clothes and hair.

The end of June shook in her ears.

‘Where do you live?’ she said, nervously. ‘I can drop you. It’ll be hard to find a taxi at this time of day.’

The woman lived in the north of the city, in a suburb near the national zoo. She knew the way because she’d been to the zoo before, to look at those lifeless animals in their cages. For the whole car journey, she felt her attention drawn to her left. They didn’t exactly know each other, but neither were they complete strangers. Their offices were a few rooms apart and they had often passed one another in the corridor, gone to the same meetings, waited for one another to hand over classes. And now the woman was being singled out as an example. It was hard to fathom. She knew she should keep quiet, was aware the woman wasn’t in the best mood, but they still had an hour to go. She started chatting about this and that, making fun of some stupid TV show, complaining about public transport being as crap as ever. Then a press conference came on the radio and they both fell silent, listening as someone attacked the administration for being a festering pile of rubbish.

‘What will you do next?’ she asked, from the driver’s seat.

Her passenger shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’

‘What did they say to you?’

‘They’re smarter about these things now. It was all very civilised. They said my contract was up. That courses are being restructured and the faculty is moving in a new direction, so my services are no longer required. They didn’t mention anything about student complaints.’

‘So that’s how they played it. I guess you can’t argue with that.’

‘Argue what?’

She didn’t reply.

‘Argue that I’m the victim here? Because that’s not what I want.’

Things were more complicated than that, she added. Much more complicated than that.

The after-work traffic was like a tide, car after car after car stretching along the outer ring road, all six lanes blocked in like a huge open-air car park. Horns blasted impatiently. The cars inched forward, queuing for the better part of an hour just to pass through the toll booth. In the shimmer of the setting sun, they were part of a sea that stretched all the way to the horizon.

‘I might apply to go abroad, if I can find a course,’ said the woman, without much enthusiasm. ‘What about you? Things are fine now, I take it? You can stay.’

She gave a small, hesitant nod, and then shook her head.

‘I don’t know, I hope so. Really hope so.’ Her voice was strained.

‘I saw the video. It’s nothing to do with you, some people just love to talk shit,’ said the woman. ‘English literature has nothing to do with it. They have nothing better to do than intimidate people, and try to make examples.’

She listened quietly, at a loss for words. She was sure that the woman was speaking the truth. But what was true had nothing whatsoever to do with what was safe. The two things were miles apart. Truth was further from safety than two islands at opposite ends of the Earth.

They arrived and waved goodbye. Exhausted, with nothing left to say, she drove off quickly and headed home.

The car turned off the ring road and climbed uphill, entering the vast wooded area that spanned the north of the city. The last rays of sunlight lingered over the treetops, and the narrow road snaked through dark tree trunks and their hazy shadows. Shrubs and branches melded into walls of greenery on either side until, abruptly, they gave way to a wall of billboards. A whole row of advertising for real estate.

It was here that the animal sprang out of nowhere – an elk, or at least something a lot like an elk, appearing all of a sudden outside the window on the driver’s side.

Those marvellous antlers. It raced past, the forest trailing behind. Perhaps it wasn’t an elk; perhaps just an ordinary deer. She couldn’t be sure because biology had never been her strong point.

She couldn’t see the whole thing, just parts of it, flashes of head and body, bobbing frantically up and down as it ran, as though being chased by a wild beast. Or as though jumping for joy, just released from a cage. For a few seconds, she completely forgot that she was driving, and couldn’t tear her eyes away: such a creature, and for it to have come so near! Right outside her window, silky fur so close she could have touched it. Antlers within easy reach. These were shorter and smaller than the antlers she’d seen on television; a little like broken branches, as though battered by the elements, left hardened and grey. Its neck was long, and its eyes seemed to stare straight at her from the sides of its head, even while it was running away at full pelt, towards something she did not know and could not see.

Briefly, they ran together along the silent road, the shadows of the trees sheltering them like a nest. In the ink-blue twilight, it was as if she’d crossed into a dream world, her everyday consciousness peeled back and replaced by a new, peculiar sensitivity that surged like a wave, so powerful that she felt she might fly. Might leave the surface of the Earth, be swept beyond the horizon and no longer belong to any time, or any place.

It was just a split-second thing. Then there was a giant bend and the car spun and she snapped awake, slamming on the brakes. The wheels screeched. The animal overtook the car, continuing its elegant, carefree sprint around the bend. One second and it had abandoned her, becoming a shrinking grey dot at the end of the road.

The car leapt the kerb, left the road and charged into the wasteland that surrounded the lake. It was over before she could scream.

She came slowly to her senses, and found herself still in her seat. Gingerly, she checked the rear-view mirror and, seeing no cars on the road behind, began a slow reverse. Her back wheels jammed in a muddy ditch. No matter how the engine roared, they would only spin in place.

She turned off the engine. A cloud of mosquitoes flew up, and her ears flooded with an insect whine. The flickering gleam of the water. She could make out a pile of abandoned furniture. There was a sofa right at the edge of the lake – close enough that, if you sat on it, you could surely touch the water with your toe. It was an enticing prospect, beckoning to her like a holiday, but when she walked closer, she realised it was impossible to reach. It was surrounded by old wood and assorted junk. She examined this collection of messy, damp objects, hoping to find planks to put under her wheels.

The mosquitoes attacked her arms and legs. She returned to the car and restarted the engine, but it was no good. She remained trapped as the sky and the lake turned completely black, desperately trying to phone for help. There was no reception; all she heard was the electronic recording from the service provider, over and over again.

She felt wild with frustration. There wasn’t a single street light.

She knew that she was some distance from the lake. But she couldn’t see anything; her eyes were wide and she couldn’t see. The absolute darkness distorted her perspective. She thought of those creation myths and their revered heroes, tearing order from chaos; of their incredible courage. Their astonishment when they saw the first ray of light, and discovered they had eyes. She knew all she had to do was turn on her headlights, but couldn’t decide which was safer: to alert others to her existence, or continue to hide in the dark?

She sat quietly for a moment, listening carefully. Listening to the unfamiliar noises out there in the night, the jagged harmony of the trees and insects. Confronting the pitch-black chaos. The wind gusted across the lake. She heard it blowing across her car, through the shrubs and the undergrowth, and she had the weary thought: that’s how it is, that’s how it is. Now rest for a while. n

 

 

Photograph © John Ishii / AFP / Getty Images

Palmyra
New Town Blues