Chapter 4 - The Pesky Crow
It is the next day. The clock on the oven flashes 12:12 as Langdon comes bounding down the stairs, disappearing through the front door for his luncheon meeting without so much as a word of parting. But then, it always was his nature to be thus, and Tom is the last person able to begrudge him his spur-of-the-moment focus. He has a tendency toward the same thing himself.
12:12. The symmetry of the red LCD clock face is satisfying. The numbers like a stuttered count-up, preparing him for some future event. But what that is, he is not sure. The morning has flown by and Tom remains sat at the kitchen table where he has sat since breakfast, trying to remember all the things in life he has forgotten. His bottom is sore from sitting still, the blank pain of stillness impossible to alleviate. The chair rocks as he shifts his weight, flimsy and lightweight, creaking metallically. So he gets up, stretches his legs, and decides to venture into the garden.
The summer heat, although not as incorrigible as it was, continues to hang in the air, still and sultry. The air is infected with malaise, a distinct disinclination to move. Even the usual sea breeze that wafts in from the coast is absent, leaving the city unhappily constrained, as though a giant and invisible net has been draped loosely across its sprawling mass.
The air is almost still. So still, in fact, that he feels himself breathing in the same air as he has just breathed out. It is thick and heavy with unforeseen history, abstemious and dilapidated like the air around ancient ruins.
The back garden is a little neater now: Langdon must have watered it early this morning. The grass is damp but drying fast, desperately pretending to be a soft English lawn beneath his bare feet. The swimming pool has been cleared of fallen foliage and although it remains empty, its bottom shines in the heat mirage of the afternoon, making it appear deceptively full. The blue tiles glisten invitingly.
Tom settles under the shade of a weeping willow, in whose branches he recalls climbing, and under whose drooping foliage he and Ember passed many an afternoon. Holding hands, talking. Her weak kneed attempts to climb the tree, her consternation when her body let her down. The memories are seeping back into him, and he can’t get enough.
The willow is perfect for climbing. They used to hide in its branches all the time. He has the urge to climb it once more. He lifts his right leg and places it in the burgh, pulling himself up by a conveniently placed twine. Soon he is perched on a branch a couple of metres from the ground, refreshingly shaded from everything around him. Up here, Tom’s mind accesses the world differently. At this height the natural pull of gravity acts more passionately, his body is unnaturally heavy.
He keeps climbing until he is securely perched in a large bowl shaped knot halfway along one of the shallower branches. It is almost like sitting in a hammock. Even at this short height, perhaps four metres off the ground, he is further from stability than he has been in years. Strangely though, the pull of gravity has lessened. There was no specific point, but somewhere between the ground and here the Earth loosened its gravitational grip on his body. Like an old rubber band with worn out elastic it stretched a little, then snapped timidly, without whiplash. Maybe gravity is too old? Maybe it can no longer exert the same force it once did?
Beneath the flowing green foliage the atmosphere is calm and protected, green light breathing in and out as the leaves billow lazily. The heat is intense, humidity hangs thick in the nose, all sorts of microscopic insects flutter about, lodging themselves in his mouth and nose. The air is heady, thick and fibrous with life. The rutted wood of the branch digs into his backside and he squirms to get comfortable. But the silence and stillness is divine. He shuts his eyes and savours the warm air, breathing in and out in time with the tree all around him.
A crow caws from high up in the tree and the bearded man with the cane emerges from its roots. He sits on one of the low branches and begins to speak, in a language Jeremy doesn’t understand, telling a story as old as time.
Kule thou oo – in the long ago – before the stars fought with each other and separated forever into their constellations, one giant silver dome hung over the Earth. The land was soft and formless, flat like moulding clay before it has been shaped. There was a great Rainbow Serpent named Goorialla who lived there, under the starred sky, drinking from the vast seas which surrounded the land and sliding from coast to coast in search of his people. For living alone in such a big land was a very lonely existence.
Everywhere he slid, his great colourful body left deep tracks like scars in the red earth. And as he passed through these scars time and again, his wet body began to leave behind traces of water in his tracks. He asked the stars to send down rain and soon the tracks had become rivers and Goorialla didn’t need to go to the sea to satisfy his great thirst anymore.
So Goorialla spent his days lounging by the rivers, drinking the water as fast as possible to stop himself dehydrating under the hot sun which was always there, as predictable as his thirst. And where he spilt the water from his gasping mouth forests and plants began to grow, and where he lay, great mountains formed, to provide shade from the sun. Happy in the world he was forming all around him, Goorialla stared into the rivers, watching his multicoloured reflection ripple in the moving water.
But the longer Goorialla spent staring at himself in the water, the lonelier he became. He had spent years in search of his people and still not found anyone. Then, one day, as he slid across the northern tip of the land, he stared out across the sea, and in the very distance spied another land. ‘I wonder if my people are over there,’ he thought to himself, and stretched out across the sea to investigate. Now Goorialla was a very great snake indeed, fully extended, his head rested on the sandy beach of the other land while the tip of his tail gripped into the headway of his homeland. ‘Hello,’ Goorialla called in his loudest voice, ‘is anyone there?’
Presently there appeared a group of small, one coloured beings, and their leader, a man named Narroondarie, began to speak, welcoming the dazzlingly coloured serpent to the land and offering him meats and fruit. Goorialla was delighted to have finally found people on this distant land and replied courteously, ‘thank you, little man, but tell me, are you happy on this island?’ Narroondarie thought long and hard about this, and replied thus: ‘We are indeed happy, this is the place of the beginning of days, where all is peace and rest.’
Goorialla was disappointed and began to retract himself back across the sea. ‘So then,’ he called as he began to depart, ‘I assume you do not want to come and live on my land, just across this sea? It is big and full of fascinating trees and rivers and mountains and has enough food and water for you to live happily for the rest of your life. If I stretch myself out you can walk across me and soon you will be in a new world. What do you say?’
So Narroondarie called a great meeting, inviting all the women and children and animals to offer their opinions as well. The meeting lasted many sun rises but eventually they made a decision and Narroondarie went back to Goorialla to offer their answer. ‘It has been a tough decision,’ he called, ‘for this land has been our home for many years and it was once a harmonious place. But recently, we have been beset by a great plague of fierce ants who sting us in our sleep and multiply everyday. So tell me, before we answer, are there such ants in your land beyond the sea?’ ‘No’ replied Goorialla, ‘mine is a land in complete peace with itself.’ So Narroondarie accepted and the people began packing up their few things in little willow bags they had brought with them from the north. One by one the people began to make their way across the sea on Goorialla’s back. And as they walked, Goorialla laughed, because their little feet tickled him and he was happy to have found his people at last.
When Narroondarie made it to the new land he gasped, so vast and beautiful was this place, and he turned and thanked the serpent for all its help. ‘The beautiful land is nearly as beautiful as you, oh great rainbow serpent, we are forever in your debt.’ And as the people walked further into the land, they sung songs to map their journey, and to give names to all the new and intriguing things they saw.
‘From here on in,” called Narroondarie as they walked, we shall be the snake tribes.’ You have done us a great honour letting us come here.”
Goorialla spent much time with his new people, teaching them to dress and dance. And they laughed together. But because Goorialla was so happy with his people, he was spending less time travelling across his lands, and the rivers began to dry out. The people had to walk further and further south to drink. Eventually, the reached a vast harbour far to the south but there was nothing more to drink except the salty sea water which made them sick. Narroondarie had no choice but to ask Goorialla for assistance. ‘Please oh great serpent, this land has grown arid and dry, can you not call down the rain to fill up our rivers once more?’
‘Of course I shall,’ Goorialla replied, ‘anything to help my people.’ And he began to slither in circles, faster and faster, cutting and shaping rocks in his immense coils until a great rock almost touching the sky had formed in the middle of his coils. He climbed up onto this rock and spoke to the star covered sky, asking it to send water down into the land. And a day later, the rain began. It rained and it rained and it rained, thick droplets falling to the land and forming great new lakes and rivers where once there were none. Goorialla was pleased. And Narroondarie and his people were pleased too.
But the rain got heavier, and the thunder began to roll around the heavens, shooting thick bursts of lightening down into the land. The people were terrified and retreated to their mia mia’s to wait it out. But two boys were caught out in the bush and when they came across Goorialla they called to him, asking him to offer them shelter. Goorialla had no shelter to offer them and they stood for a minute getting wet. Then another vast lick of lightening cracked down from the heavens and the boys trembled, wet and cold and frightened, and Goorialla had an idea. ‘Come, boys, I shall open my mouth and you can shelter in my body.’ Grateful, the boys climbed in and found refuge in the great serpents belly.
But as the storm raged, Goorialla grew worried, fearing that his people might be upset with him for eating the two boys and so he ran away up onto the top of a big mountain.
When finally the storm abated and the rain slowed to a drizzle, Narroondarrie came out of his mia mia and looked out at the world, seeing how much water covered the land and how the sea-river had grown high, threatening to flood their hunting planes. So he went to search of Goorialla to ask that the great serpent assist them in holding back the sea. But Goorialla was nowhere to be found. And when he returned to the tribe, he discovered that the two boys were missing.
After many moons of searching and with the sea river encroaching ever further onto the land, they at last spied a rainbow arcing from the top of a distant mountain. The sun was shining, the storm showed signs of ending. But they pressed on and came upon Goorialla on the top of the hill. ‘Oh great Goorialla, please, help us push back the sea. It threatens to drown us all.’ But Goorialla, so consumed with guilt and fearful of doing anything else wrong, replied that Narroondarrie would have to find his own solutions: ‘you must accept the wet with the dry,’ he answered, ‘there is nothing more I can do.’
Narroondarrie was surprised and called a meeting to discuss what was to be done about the encroaching sea. But at the meeting one of the wise elders stood up and claimed that Goorialla had eaten the boys and grown fat and lazy. At once, they all knew it was true and so they returned to the mountain, determined to free their boys. While the great serpent slept, Narroondarrie crept up, cut open his stomach and no sooner was the flesh parted than out flew two bright, rainbow lorikeets who fluttered around the tribe singing loudly, happy to be free.
So loudly did they sing that the birds woke Goorialla from his sleep and when he saw what had been done to him he flew into a great rage and began tearing the mountain apart, hurling rocks down on the tribes people, killing and injuring many of them. And when the mountain was destroyed, he crawled away across the plane and vanished into the sea, where he whipped it up into a ferocious lather. And the sea flooded more and more of the land that was once the tribal hunting grounds.
Terrified that the tribe would be washed away forever, Narroondarrie set out, alone, to the sea, and when he arrived there he sat down upon the waters edge and placed his bag made from willow in a small hole by his side. For 30 sun rises he sat there, staring out at the sea and asking the Great Spirit Nabalee to save them. So long did he spend communing with the sea that he did not notice that sprouts were bursting from his willow bag. And when he finally did look down, he saw that roots were growing deep down into the earth, and the bag had begun to grow into a tree. And Narroondarie smiled to himself, because he remembered the old legends about willows protecting against the encroachment of rivers, and he understood that, as usual, nature had found a way to solve its own problems. And that is why, even now, that tree is important, for it is the tree which saved all of Australia from the great flood of the serpent Goorialla. It marks the farthest point those waters rose, before they drifted back and formed the drowned river valley which is now Port Jackson. And the two rainbow lorikeets, and all their descendants, sing each and every morning, to thank Narroondarrie and his tribe for freeing them from the great serpent Goorialla.
Tom wakes with no idea how much time has passed. The sun, shielded behind green foliage, has barely moved across the heavens. But it feels as though he has been asleep for weeks. The man has finished his story and disappeared back into the tree.
He makes his way down the tree and steps through the curtain of twining leaves into the blinding gaze of the sun. And slowly he walks back to the house.
Ah, the freshness of an afternoon shower. He has not bathed in almost a week and has forgotten what it is like to be clean. His skin tingles and his hair is lighter, he walks unencumbered by grime, with the scent of lemon surrounding him. But now that his body is clean and smooth, his clothes are more uncomfortable than ever, chaffing at his shoulders, rubbing like sandpaper at his armpits and groin. Walking stiffly, he scuttles his way down to the kitchen.
He turns the sink tap on and waits for it to run cold, pours himself a rewarding glass of cold water, and sits down at the table. The table is at an uncomfortable height, either it is too high or the chair is too low. Either way he is strangely aware of the size of his body as he sits there, sipping the water. He stares into space, hoping the words of the mooncumbulli will lull him back to sleep. The sun arches gradually across the sky, but Tom’s mind sees only one single figure. Ember. She is everywhere in his mind.
So it is that Jason Langdon returns to the house many hours later, a weary smile on his face brought about by too much wine and sun. It is getting on for 7pm and the light has a distinctly evening feel about it. The air had grown thick and hangs lower, if such things are possible, and the light has dimmed, projecting an increasingly colourful illumination across the city. An invisible rainbow.
He is in a good mood, peaceful and relaxed as he calls out, “Tom,” and waits for an answer. But none is forthcoming. Assuming Tom has gone out he heads to the kitchen with his small bag of shopping. The door is pulled shut and he has to put down the shopping in order to slide it back. When he does so the sight that meets his eyes takes his breath away.
Streaming through the kitchen window the sun’s rays beam across the room, casting a warm and golden light like the illumination of a Baroque fresco. Everywhere the light touches pools form, like lakes of liquid gold, melted down by princes of obscene wealth. It is as if the room has come alive, in four dimensions, if such a thing is possible. But there is darkness there too. Every part of the room that isn’t touched by light is cast in gloomy darkness, impenetrable by the artists brush. The contrast is amazing; the light has such depth, such character, the dark an unseen mystery which can never be solved. Langdon changes his mind. No, it is more Turneresque.
And in the middle of the streaming light, unseen and unseeing, sits Tom. One side of his face shining brightly, eye blue and gleaming, tears streaming down his face, refracting the light in playful swells. He has not moved. He sits there with a straight back and vacant eyes, looking right at Langdon but seeing another being altogether. Caught in that millisecond of exposure, a photographer could capture an iconic image. But had Langdon been busy poking a big mechanical eye about, he would have missed the beauty of this perfect moment.
“Oh! Sorry,” he stammers, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Leaving the groceries where they lie he turns to leave, not wanting to infringe upon the untouched peace of the scene before him.
“Ember?” comes the dreamy, distant voice of Tom Jefferson. And then, suddenly aware that he is back in the kitchen his eyes refocus and he becomes coherent once more, “Sorry, I was miles away.”
“So I could see,” replies Langdon, returning to the kitchen and placing the shopping on the table. “Are you okay?”
“Just…thinking.” Tom makes a motion to wipe the tears from his cheek, but pauses, holding his hand to his face as if cupping them.
“This house brings back all kinds of memories, doesn’t it?” Starts Langdon. “It’s nice to know history doesn’t just die, but lives on in the places it happened. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Feel free.” Tom is still staring directly ahead, vaguely through Langdon without realising it. He shifts his focus and takes in the man before him. That imposing manner, it is in everything he does. And yet it is all less than it once was. The man has shrunk in the intervening years. And there is something else that he cannot pinpoint. Regret? Perhaps. He is not sure. Langdon is difficult to read and again the realisation hits him that this man is human, and that he knows absolutely nothing about him.
“You miss her don’t you? Ember, I mean.”
Speaking such profound words so casually. Tom is momentarily stunned. He nods.
“She is in these walls. Every room feels empty without her.”
“How is she?” Tom asks. Hesitantly. Unsure he wants to know yet certain that he already does. Surely he would have felt it if anything bad had happened, like cows can sense impending earthquakes.
“She’s well…” Langdon is about to embellish, talk about her marriage to Pasha and their three lovely children - his grandchildren - David and Elizabeth and little Thomas. But now is not the time.
And still Tom is unsure how to respond. The information surprises him. It brings her out of his memory and into the present, into a life he knows nothing of. “I’m glad, you know. I’d hate her to be unhappy. She deserved the best.”
Words are forming on their tongues, smoking between them. But neither man pays much attention to what he says. The act of speaking is enough. They sit and stare at each other and smile, for she resides in each of them. After an indeterminate period of time Tom stands and surveys the food Langdon has bought. Red Peppers, Sun Dried Tomatoes, stuffed Rigatoni and pancetta. Food he has eaten the world over but rarely bought or cooked for himself. He wants to make amends for his ignorance, to offer his silent generosity as compensation for everyone he has overlooked. He stands and begins to prepare the food. Neither man speaks much, lost as they are in their joint, though private, memories. Sat at the table, Langdon begins to prepare a salad.
And so the evening passes. Barely a word spoken. There is no need to talk; they are closer now than ever before.
“Oh, did I tell you?” Langdon begins at last, as they sit down to eat. “I called Neil. We leave for Adelaide tomorrow. If you are still up for it, we would be delighted to have you along.” His face is fixed and uncommunicative. But there is nothing but generosity in his eyes.