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March 3, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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This year, Salient wants to publish the fantastic creative work that is being produced at Vic. We want to print design, architecture, photography, poetry and prose. Send us your work to editor@salient.org.nz.
 
This week’s work was produced by Alexandra Hollis.
She is a third-year English Literature student. Hollis created this piece at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters. We love it.

——

They were dancing in the grass and then it was five years later and she was lying on her back, her head dangling off the edge of the deck, refusing to see things the right way up.

The ends of her hair were brushing against the dirt. There was nothing to be done. He dug behind a pile of her lopsided ceramics, dusted off the bike, and cycled away. The back wheels of the tandem hung uselessly, like a paralysed limb.

——

It was a calm day. Hot. Her hair had been wet before he left; it was drying into stiff waves, sticking out from her scalp. Gravity was pressing at her neck, forcing it further and further into the ground. The sky. This was the decision she had made. It was the sky, now; the ground was the sky and the sky was the ground. She tilted her head, looked up at the dirt, spotted with drops from her hair. Water hitting the sky, not coming from it. The underside of her chin was exposed. She thought she might be getting sunburnt there, where she hadn’t been since she was a child.

She couldn’t stay here indefinitely. Soon enough, the blood would pool in her head and she’d pass out or maybe die. Her face would turn purple. Her arms, beside her head, reaching up towards the ground, would fill with fluid and grow to the size of her legs. She would be grotesque. She would be called The Greatest Work Of Performance Art This Century.

He’d done the right thing, leaving. It was high time one or both of them took some action, her sister had said.

“You need to be realistic,” her sister had said.

“I don’t want to be realistic,” she’d said.

“Wanting is beside the point.”

“I want to want things.”

“You need to need things.”

“I need to want.”

“You need to be fucking realistic.”

Things were better this way up. Past the grass, the sky turned into the road and the road, shimmering in the heat, turned into fragments of concrete, layers of sky falling in on themselves. She could see the houses, lamp-posts, fences straining at their foundations. They wanted to fall. In front of her eyes, the blades of grass were stretching away from the dirt. She was losing faith in gravity. She thought that if a shuttlecock flew into the air it wouldn’t be pulled back towards the grass, but would keep flying into space, indefinitely.

The grey sky was crumbling and still people jogged along its surface. The blue beneath her grew larger. Without the distraction of any buildings she became aware of how huge it really was. Mostly blue; few clouds; vast. The details of the street became toy-sized, and hills seemed to stretch down towards the clouds as if seeking an entryway into space. Her tongue slipped out of her mouth and she came close to choking on it.

——

The day was throwing gravel beneath his skin. It was a fucking shame, because he’d had such a great exit. He’d yelled one last thing to her – “you’re such a fucking dreamer! Wake up already!” – then he’d mounted the tandem bike and sped away, leaving a cloud of dust and gravel behind him. Except some of the stones had lodged themselves under his skin, and they weren’t coming out.

The bike wobbled as he brushed at his arm. They were definitely lodged in there; little stones, all over his arm, poking up between freckles. He rubbed harder. There was no moving them. At least the stones weren’t too big. That would really encumber his cycling. His cycling was, if he was being honest, already encumbered; whenever his pace slackened the bike wobbled, darting precariously across the road. It was hard to steer straight on his own.

There were stones in his legs, too, and when he pushed down on the pedals he could feel them shifting around his knees and settling into place. The bike wobbled. He pedalled faster. His jeans bunched at his thighs, stretching over the stones. They were too tight for the weather; sweat trickled down his back, pooling at the crotch. He was a man of action: he had a plan.

Through the intersection, wobbling a bit. He made sure to be careful with his turns, giving cars and corners a wide berth. The bike shuddered. Left here. Left her. Had he left her? He didn’t think so; he thought he’d just left. Up the hill, towards the top. This was even harder. The stones, poking out from his skin, were encumbering him. They weren’t exactly painful but they were chafing quite a lot. He was terrified that she didn’t love him; he was terrified that she did. The scariest thing he could think of was that they might both still love each other, and it might not be enough. The wind buffeted at him. Oh, he needed to breathe.

It was because the hill was getting steep; he was puffing. Nothing to do with the thought of her making him panic and causing him to lose his breath. The road was gravelly, dislodging more stones into the air, which were joining the others beneath his skin. He was almost at the top. He could feel stones in his face. They were making his skin tight around his eyes; he couldn’t blink. Dust blew into his face. His eyes started watering. It had been their first real fight. Water ran down his cheeks.

The stones were jagged and hard all over his body; it hurt to pedal. When he moved the stones moved, and the more he moved the more he could feel that they were eroding the veins in his arms, pressing, where his back grew tight, into his kidneys. There was pain, a lot of pain, and he couldn’t keep moving, so he: paused. A car came past. He was suspended in motion, leaning slightly towards the bank of the hill and, as the wind from the car hit him, the bike shook and he was tipping, then falling, landing solidly in the ditch.

——

Her cheeks, without her help or approval, spread into a gruesome smile. There were dandelions tickling her nose. She tried to blow one out, but her throat was constricted by the angle of her head, and breath eluded her. She wasn’t sure he actually had left her. It had seemed pretty conclusive, given that he had left her, but it was occurring to her now that leaving and leaving her were two very different things.

The day had grown longer; on the road, the sky had stopped breaking apart. In the distance, not yet a dusky red but a shade which anticipated this, there was a mountain which reached down into space. If it kept growing into the clouds like that it would pool into a droplet of mountain, which would peel off at the bottom and plummet into the sky, ripping a hole in the atmosphere, causing all the air to rush out. Instantaneous death via suffocation.

They had gone camping near that mountain, years ago, just after they were married. Only for three days, but they’d held hands almost the entire time. They drifted around the campsite together, tugging at their hands each time they wanted to change direction. They were beautiful, unreal. He was definitely leaving her.

There was something cold near the back of her left hand. What was that? She could smell him on her skin. Even after showering, she’d sniff her arms, and there he was. No amount of scrubbing would get him out. Sometimes she hated him for that. She could feel the cold by her hand, but couldn’t touch it. Only, just now she’d started enjoying the idea of getting really, disgustingly old with him. There was too much weight on her throat, where it was bent around the wood of the desk. She couldn’t breathe. What the fuck was making her hand so cold?

She reached out; she touched glass. Water! She’d forgotten that it had been sitting there, since before that fucking wildly escalating argument. Yes!, she thought, water! What a wonderful world that, upside down, there could still be water sitting in glasses, not flying into space. She picked up the glass, bringing it up to her mouth–

It went everywhere. She was soaked.

Of course. Gravity.

——

He was in the gutter. The back wheel of the bike was still spinning. There was blood in his mouth, seeping between his teeth, from where he’d bitten his tongue. He was sprawled across the ground, and the soles of his feet were trembling in the air, trying to grip the ground, not understanding that they couldn’t. His legs shook. He tried to push himself up. His biceps strained, his shoulders felt heavy. His whole body shook. He dragged one knee forward, then the other, until they were beneath his hips, digging into the ground. His legs were steady, but now his arms were shaking. The pain was too much to feel at once. It had congested in his stomach; a tight, deep, burn. He pushed with his legs, waiting in a crouch for the wave of pain to pass. Slowly, carefully, he stood upright. Stones crunched in his back.

Just ahead of him: the transmission tower. The wind had picked up; it was howling up the hill, and through the bars of the tower. He couldn’t understand the sound it was making. A music which wasn’t music. It would have started, he thought, as a single note, but when it reverberated off the different bits of the tower the sound began to waver, until it turned into a symphony. The back wheels of the tandem joined in, jangling in the wind. His hand brushed the handlebars and when it did it made the sharp sound of gravel scraping metal. There could be worse things in the world than this.

She was obstinate. She was oblivious. Although it had hurt to move at first, it seemed that now the shock of the fall had numbed him to the pain; he could move almost easily. He kept brushing his hand over the handlebars, enjoying the sound he was making. She terrified him, but she was necessary. Scraping, jangling, humming; it was the most discordant symphony in the world. He stopped moving. She wouldn’t be at home. The humming continued. He knew where she was. It was obvious now that he thought about it. And when he hoisted the tandem up, and pointed it downhill, he felt fewer stones than before, and very little pain at all.

——

She was walking, and she wasn’t falling. Her hair was hanging, sitting comfortably on her shoulders not radiating out from her scalp in a halo. It shouldn’t have been so easy to get used to, but as she walked barefoot through the streets she had to keep reminding herself that her toes, gripping at the ground, were the only things holding her to the earth. Buildings seemed taller; she lost track of what the sky was doing. By the time she’d reached the bus terminal she stopped feeling like she was falling into the clouds, and she was able to sum up the courage to address the automated ticketing machine.

“Destination.”

“I think that my husband’s left me.”

“Destination.”

“I’m not sure about that, though.”

“Destination.”

“It feels like something I should be sure of.”

“Destination.”

“Fuck him.”

“Destination.”

“Yes. Yeah. I know where I’m going.”

The moon rose, autumnal, resting for a moment on the rich-red ridge of the mountain. From the open doors of their tent they saw it grow, clean, blue. Across the grass there was a family living in a civilisation of poly-blended, graphite-poled tents. They were earnest, absorbed, playing badminton long into the dusk. Their shuttlecock had a light in it; it flew from person to person, bouncing above their heads in some elaborate pattern. The brightest spot in the night. They followed it, hand in hand, watching; their little tent, and the family in the background, and the light–

“–like we’ve been watching it forever.”

“I think we have.”

“I think so too.”

“Are there still people at the river?”

“You can hear their voices. Listen.”

“And those are their torches shining on the hills.”

Inside the badminton game, a boy called out: “I can see two little stars!”

She leaned over, whispered. “They’re not real.”

——

“Were we?”

His voice startled her past five years, dragging her through and beyond the discomfort of the one same house, and his breath on her pillow, and being loved, into now: a mountain, an empty campsite, him.

“I’m still not sure,” she said.

He nodded. He sat down carefully, considering his approach before he made it.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

The stars had come out. She looked up at them (she didn’t want to look at him). The sky was everything. It was dashed with a furious stroke of stars. It was a lake she wanted to fall into.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She grabbed his hand. She looked at the sky. It was a lake.

“I spent most of today thinking I was going to fall into space.”

She didn’t want to fall.

He didn’t want her to.

She could feel his pulse. He was breathing. He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back. His hand felt rougher than usual, she thought. Small ridges had appeared across his palm. It was hard to hold onto, but it was his hand, so she made an effort.

“I think we were real,” she said. “I think we still are.”

Near the crest of the mountain, a star twinkling into place. Then another. A low, sweet humming sound.

“What’s that music?”

“Dance?”

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