[Image: Mathieu Croisetière by Sophie Lécuyer]
Lavinia is next door. She needs you to go over there to help her take a bath. She will be impatient by now, stewing in front of the TV, the horse racing already finished. She doesn’t want to be stuck watching Sale of the Century. She wants the bath and all its humiliations done with, but first she needs you there, making a point of being cheerful, making a point of not letting her drown. You will run the bath at the right depth and temperature; you are reliable in this way. Leave your daughter at home, this is private.
But Mum! she says. I want to go and see Aunt Vinnie.
Quiet, Bet. Eat your orange.
Mum, she loves me, Betty says. She told me so. She gave me Smarties. I want a Smartie.
Shut up, Bet. Eat your orange.
Can we go swimming later? In Helen’s pool? Not the big pool. I’m hot.
Don’t yell. Leave her there with pencils. Say, Draw Aunt Vinnie a picture. Go, she is waiting for you.
Rails and hoists everywhere in this house. They are trying to prop up a person, but the person shrivels. Her nastiness and sweetness, too, are more concentrated, more urgent than they were.
Dear, she says. Hello, dear.
Hi, Vin. Give her a kiss. How are you feeling?
My hands were bad this morning. I dropped Darling’s dish behind the oven.
It’s all right, I’ll get it.
I think it broke.
Darling won’t mind.
Mighty hoity toity, that cat. Have you seen her?
And then little Betty comes running through the yard. Vin purses her lips and looks away.
What did I tell you, miss?
I don’t want to!
That doesn’t matter. You go back home, please.
I can help you find Darling.
No you can’t. You go home. And the child troops back, defeated. All the grass is faded at this time of year.
She’s turning into a brat, that child of yours.
It’s her dad. He’s been moody.
You know what I think about that man.
I don’t think she’s happy at school. She keeps walking home at lunch and hiding in the backyard.
I hope you give her a spanking for that.
No, thank you, dear.
Shall we get on with the bath then?
Betty hides behind the pampas grass. This is her spot. The grass grows great tall stalks with tufts at the ends: spears or flame torches. They protect her and declare her territory. The big spiky clump squats right in the corner of the yard, edged by rotting fences. She has to crawl around its base to get to the little space behind—no one else can fit back there, this is why it is forbidden. The adults shout around the sides, Bet! You come out right now! and sometimes she comes out and sometimes she shouts back, but sometimes she stays there in a ball, quiet as a ghost, and lets them think that she has hidden somewhere else, or that she is gone, vanished.
She doesn’t really know how to vanish. The person who knows is Samantha. Sam is seven; she’s been seven for three years now. She lives inside the pampas bush, but Betty hasn’t told anyone. Nobody needs to know. Her sister’s quiet presence doesn’t affect the growing of her spears, so Betty will allow her to stay there if she wants. Sam was already too big to get behind the bush when she died. Fat, their dad called her.
Today, there’s not much need to hide. Betty crawls out and goes back to the table by the window, with her orange peel and her paper and pencils all spread out. She decides to make Vinnie a series of five drawings depicting Darling’s exploits. Darling catches a rat. Darling does that funny bum wiggle before she pounces on a bird. Darling walks along the gate with her tail straight up. Darling sticks her claws into your lap. Darling fights a shark. Betty hasn’t seen that one, but she thinks Darling would win. She finishes with Darling on the gate, and is onto the bum wiggle by the time you come home.
Come in the door, wet from the bath.
Mum, I’m hungry, she says.
No you’re not, you just had an orange.
Can we have dinner?
We’re going to the lake for dinner. We’re going to meet Dad after work. That’ll be nice, won’t it?
She’s drawing happily enough. Go into your bedroom and shut the door.
At the lake it’s cool and grey, a day from a misplaced season. It almost feels like rain, and there has been no rain this summer. Put the kid’s cardigan on. She’s still cold. Put your cardigan on her as well. She leaps up, flapping its long sleeves, mimicking the crows that you can hear nearby, but not see.
Did you find Darling? she says.
Maybe she’s gone on a visit down the road.
She caws and runs, swooping, to the water’s edge. She’s graceful in her childish way, her wings stiff and arched. She flies low along the lake wall in one long glide. Watch, don’t get up. Don’t go over there.
She swoops back. Where’s Dad?
I don’t know.
Is he running late?
A little bit. We can start dinner if you want. Take the food out of the bag: hummus, tomatoes, bread, an ice-cream container of grapes.
Yum, hummus. Betty dips her bread in. She’d eat it for every meal if she were allowed.
The wind is rising, pulling the trees around you into frenzies. Betty shivers. Say, This is an adventure, isn’t it?
She nods seriously. Maybe we’re going to be swept out to sea.
Do you reckon?
We’d better have dinner first, so we have the strength to swim back.
She bites into a tomato, juice squirting down her front. We might never get back, though. We might have to live on an island.
Would you like that?
She thinks. No. The wind is angrier now, and cold. The water rises in peaks. Mum, let’s go home.
The wind moans through the car windows. The enclosed air is warm, the car a time capsule from the afternoon. Outside, the willows along the lake are pulled in contortions.
Betty sits small in the front seat, smiling at the storm. We’re safe, she says.
When you get home, call Adam. Say, Where were you?
His voice sounds padded, relaxed. Oh, sorry, he says. I fell asleep at my desk. You woke me up.
Not the best weather for a picnic, anyway. Have you been outside? Wait as he walks to the window. Listen as he opens it, hear the wind rush through the phone.
Say, Are you coming home?
It’s as if he lifts his head away from the phone and cranes it out the door, takes a sweep of the office before he answers. Maybe he’s just stretching. Yeah.
Go around the house and shut the windows. Run over to Vin’s to shut hers, find her awake in bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Say, Looks like a bit of a storm! She doesn’t answer. Shut the windows and leave.
Adam comes in, his hair and suit rumpled. The air rushes in with him; with an effort he pushes the door shut. His body is tense. He turns and sees you, and then looks away. Go to the back and look out at the yard, which is dark now, full of movement and sound.
Betty comes up next to you and takes your hand with her little one. She looks worriedly out into the garden.
Say, What is it?
She says, Nothing. Give her hand a squeeze. She pries it away and goes across to the laundry. Follow, to see her hoist herself up and sit in the sink, which is big enough around her to be a boat. She sits hugging her knees, looking out the laundry window.
Outside, there’s a great tearing crack and a crunch.
Run out the back door. The wind comes at you with grabbing hands. You can just see Lavinia’s house. Falling into it is a great dark shape. By the fence, your gum tree has fallen—the flaky-barked gum you planted when you moved in, eleven years ago. It was as tall as you then; now it’s huge. It presses the fence halfway to the ground and rests in the house, trunk leaning through the wall, branches half hidden.
Slam the door. Run through the house. Adam will follow. Run out the front door into the wind and across. Lower your head. Brace your shoulders. Now the rain begins, great cold drops smacking down. Get to Vin’s and open the door. The living room is full of branches; there’s no way through. Adam overtakes you and grabs a branch the girth of his arm, then pulls with his whole body. The branch breaks. There’s a space to duck under. He opens the door to Vin’s bedroom and there she is, lying flat, eyes frozen wide. He scoops her up, covers and all. She holds on tight, as best she can.
He carries her to the next room. Follow behind, saying, Hi Vin, it’s okay, you’re okay, we’re going to bring you back to our place. His body shakes, bending with her under the branches.
Darling, Vin says weakly. Pretend you don’t hear.
Outside, the rain comes down fat and fast, and the wind shoves at your body. At home, the front door is wide open. Adam lays Vin on the couch.
Darling, she says.
Tuck the blanket around her. Shhh.
That damn cat.
She’ll be okay. Get another blanket, lay it over her. Are you comfy?
She shuts her eyes.
Turn to Adam. Say, We need to put her to bed.
He puts his hands in his pockets and looks out the window. He is still wearing his suit jacket. Splashes of darker grey speckle his shoulders. He takes a tight breath and holds it.
Look down at the trembling woman.
Go down the corridor until you get to Sam’s room. Open the door; turn on the light. The bed is there by the desk, as it was. The desk is bare, the bed stripped. At its foot there are boxes piled up.
The room is dusty.
Stand. Hold the door knob.
It won’t be good for Vin’s asthma.
Dust quickly, there aren’t many surfaces to cover. Brush the mattress down with your hands. Vacuum the room, under the bed, around the desk. Put the cleaning things away. Take out sheets, blankets, pillows; make the bed.
In the front room, he is still standing a foot away from the couch. His hands are in his pockets, his eyes fixed hard on a point somewhere outside the window.
Kneel down by the old woman. Say, gently, Vin, we’re putting you in Sam’s bed. It’s all made up. She does not acknowledge your voice.
Turn to him. He ignores both of you, just standing still, looking away.
After a second, he lets out a little sigh, his well-tailored shoulders deflating slightly. Then he kneels down to the old woman. He eases his arms around her, gently now. He picks her up as if she’s a sleeping child, and slowly walks down the corridor.
Sit down on the couch. The lights are on, the walls are sound. Everything outside is violent. The rain hammers on the roof; the wind pushes like groups of ghosts through everything: trees, leaves, buildings. It picks up anything loose: stones, toys. It throws them around, throws them back, breathing raggedly through lungs past exhaustion. Inside the room it’s quiet and still.
He comes back in and sits at the other end of the couch, facing forward.
After a second he says, Where’s Betty?
She’s not in the laundry. She’s not at the window. Open the back door, shout, Betty! Your voice is lost in the wind, the rain driving into your face and front. There’s nothing out there but the frenzied darkness. But then there she comes, appearing right in front of you like a vision. Her hair is sodden flat, tangled over her face, her two cardigans plastered to her. Open the door wide for her to run in. Wrap her up in your arms, hug her little body hard.
Say, Bet, what were you doing out there? She doesn’t answer, but hugs you back tightly. Stand up, clasping her into you. Walk to the front of the house, down the corridor to the bathroom. With her holding on like a monkey, run the bath. Kneel down and gently take her from you; stand her up on the soft mat. She stands calmly, letting you undress her. Help her into the bath. Sit down on the toilet seat. Watch her. She lies like a little Ophelia, hair floating in a cloud around her head.
Lift her out and wrap her in a towel. Carry her down to her room and rub her dry. Help her into her pyjamas. Dry her hair. Tuck her into bed.
Sit down next to her and brush the hair off her face. Say, Are you going to sleep well?
She says, I don’t know. She looks very serious.
Say, I think you will. Give her a kiss. The wind is still doing mad rounds outside; the rain has slowed to an uneven hum. Good night.
Turn out the light. Leave the door ajar.
Find him on the couch where you left him, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. Sit down by him, a little distance away. Don’t let him catch you looking.
Then in one movement, without turning his head, he reaches out and pulls you towards him. Go. Tuck your legs behind you. Push your hands around his waist, lean in deep, feel his breath and his heartbeat. Stay like that, not resting but holding on. Notice yourself, the two of you, awake, alive.
In the dark, the storm will fight itself out.
In the morning, open the front door to see the wreckage. Everything is strewn out, peaceful now. The air is pale and big, cool, smelling of rain and torn-up plants. Bird sounds are beginning tentatively.
Then from around the fence comes the sodden cat, like a shot, up the path and between your legs.
Eleanor Garran is an Australian writer living in Minneapolis, where they’re an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. Their work is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Hobart, New Orleans Review and The Cincinnati Review.