The Margaret and Reg Turnill Prize 2016 Winner: Holly Cartwright – The Fallow Sons of a Failed Astronaut
The Fallow Sons of a Failed Astronaut
Father tells us that during the day the sky is merely a leafy branch which shades us from the heat of the sun but at night it is a window to outer space.
I lie on my back feeling the ocean rock below me, contemplating this phrase which has rolled over our father’s tongue so many times it wears the same rusty hue as the pages of a treasured, well-thumbed book.
The only thing my older brother Cheveyo and I have against our father is the fact that he’s never been to space. The man has crossed mountains, walked from one coast to the next, avoided being vanquished by the forces which vanquished his tribe and supposedly the white man too. But he’s failed to travel through the window he talks of so often to the place beyond the sky.
The sky is blue and white and soft as a fresh egg, yet heavy as the sun.
Cheveyo is on the shore, hunting for the pebbles which feel like warm palms. He is a small black shape standing against the wall of sky. His hand is waving, and he is hollering my name. I swim over to him and get out of the water. He points to something on the horizon, shielding his eyes with his other hand.
“You see that?” he asks. I look where he is pointing. Dots of white light fog my vision momentarily and all I can see is Cheveyo’s long dark finger wavering in the heat. But then I see it: miles away at the other end of the bay, there is a long, thin spear-like structure sticking out of the ground with another thin spear jutting off it.
“What do you think it is?” he asks. I shrug my shoulders. “I know,” he continues, his voice deep and confident in his chest, “it’s probably one of those trees; those really big trees that father told us he once saw in the forest.” He looks at me, his dark eyes probing my face. “Those really big old trees,” he clarifies. “Don’t you remember?”
I nod because you don’t disagree with a man with a voice like that when your own voice is as young and unruly as a small mouse. In fact, you don’t disagree with Cheveyo at all. It’ll occur to him eventually that we’d have noticed the strange object before, had it been there long enough to become like those wise, gnarled old men of Nature. Our parents named him Cheveyo because of his spirit, not because of his brain.
“Or it might be a really tall man,” he says. “A giant.”
“Let’s ask father,” I say, kicking my feet out of the sinking sand. “I’ll race you home.”
We run and the wind lifts our bodies high in the air and the sand burns the soles of our feet. Cheveyo, though, keeps turning his neck to look towards the end of the bay, and so I win.
When we tell our father about what we saw, he shakes his head. He is sat on the ground, carving small figures onto thin pieces of wood. Mother comes into the room to listen.
“It is best to leave it alone,” he says, not looking up from his task. “It should be gone in a day or two.”
“But what is it, father?” Cheveyo asks, looking disappointed.
“It is nothing,” father says. “Just a big piece of metal.”
He looks up at us then, and sets down his work in front of him. His eyes are great and black in their sockets, drooping slightly as if struggling to cope with the weight of the knowledge which rests above them. He sighs deeply when he sees my brother’s face.
“You remember me telling you about the concrete path by the ocean?” he asks. We nod. Last winter the wind was so strong that half of the beach was either washed or blown away, and a path as hard as rock was uncovered. Father told us it was made of something men that were here before us called concrete. They loved the stuff, he said.
“Well,” father says now, scratching his head, “this is something to do with that. It is called a crane.”
“Cha’akmongwi,” mother warns. She folds her arms across her chest and stares at father.
“I know, Hakidonmuya,” he says, closing his eyes. “But I tell you it’s nothing to worry about.”
“How do you know?” she demands. She is frowning down at father. Mother frowns down at father a lot. This is probably why he spends his time carving his dreams into wood rather than speaking to her about them.
“You know them, Hakidonmuya.” He looks at her meaningfully, his eyes wide and pleading. “They never finish anything. They get ill or get bored before they do.”
“Who’s them?” Cheveyo asks. I could kick him now. He’s already dug enough of a hole for the both of us already by allowing his curious nature, like always, to seep through his lips like poisoned sap.
“The white man,” mother says. Her face suddenly crumples into a bird’s nest of wrinkled flesh and trembling lip and pain. “White man,” she whispers at us, then rushes out of the room.
“This is a very sensitive topic to your mother,” father says sternly. He resumes his work. “Don’t bring it up again in her presence.”
“Alright father,” I say. “We won’t.” But we already know about our mother’s aversion to the elusive, phantom-like white man. It has something to do with a time when people like us and the white man lived together. Whenever we ask father about the white man, though, he puts a finger to his lips and looks silently up at the sky, so our guess is that the white men are in space.
“Crane,” Cheveyo whispers under his breath as we walk back to the beach. “Strange word. Aren’t cranes some kind of bird?”
“Yes,” I say. I wonder why I am not as fascinated as he is by this new discovery. I feel no need to taste the word crane with my own tongue, nor to stare towards the thing with longing as my brother is doing.
“I had no idea this had anything to do with the white man,” my brother continues thoughtfully. “It is a real mystery, isn’t it?”
“Hmmm,” I say. The sky is becoming red; the sun is descending into the sea. A warm breath of air crosses the bay, like a relieved sigh after a long day.
“I wonder what is over there,” Cheveyo says, looking in the direction of the breeze. “I wonder what the land is like where that breeze is made.” But I just look upwards, towards the place where the stars grow in speckled heaps of light against the black, and where the moon blooms out of the shadow like a man’s newly awakened face emerging from the cradle of his arms.
Night time is my favourite time of the day. Every night my brother and I lie beneath the window of the night sky, looking out into the cosmos and watching the constellations play out their stories.
Tonight the waves wash quietly against the shore: the sound of the sea sucking land away then sucking it back out again. The moon is full and clear and bright.
“You’ve been quiet today,” my brother says beside me. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” I reply. “What could be wrong with me?”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe the thing with the crane scared you.”
“It takes more than a crane to scare me,” I say, hating the small boy sound of my voice.
“Then let’s go and see it.”
His words are heavy in the silver dark. I look at him out of the corner of my eye, and he is lying on his back, staring peacefully up at the stars.
“You’re not serious, are you?” I say, though I know he is. “Father told us to leave it.”
“Well we wouldn’t tell him, of course.”
“You rely too much on words, brother. If it has something to do with the white men, it means it is dangerous.”
“You said you weren’t scared.”
I don’t reply.
“Fine,” he says. “I just thought you would, that’s all.”
“And why’s that?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking.” He pauses for a moment. I can almost hear the fragile machinery of his mind clicking and churning in its brutal, honest way. “That thing must be really tall when you get to it. I think it touches the sky.”
Cheveyo rolls himself onto his feet then. He stands above me, tall and manly and important. He points upwards, his arm and hand reflecting the light of the moon.
“We could climb it and get to space,” he says.
The next night we say goodnight to our parents and head, as usual, towards the beach. Instead of flopping down near the shoreline and making ourselves comfortable on the warm sand for sleep, though, we continue walking along the beach. It is cloudy tonight: our parents won’t know we’re missing if they happen to look outside.
My heart begins to jump and bounce in my chest as we step into the water to get around the headland which separates our beach from the next one. A sickness jabbers in my stomach and sloshes from one lung to the next like the writhing body of a drowning fish.
I start to wish I’d never agreed to this, but when the spirit heard the word space it lost touch with reason and sense, and forced silly words into my mouth like: “Yes, brother, I will accompany you on this quest.” Cheveyo said that the white men must be using the crane to get down from space, and that we can therefore use it to get into space. I fear the white man, but the prospect of succeeding where father has failed, and of actually being in space, weakens the restraint of fear considerably.
To make myself feel better, I summon the image of my hand touching the sky, of somehow breaking through the window and walking out into the black of space. I imagine the Earth beneath my feet, a soft membrane squelching between my toes.
We step onto the land again, and begin to run across the sand in the direction of the crane. For some reason it looks smaller now that we’re closer to it. Cheveyo said that it wouldn’t take us long to reach it, perhaps half the night. I remind him of this while we run.
“We’ll get there,” he says, panting slightly. “It probably just looks smaller because we’re not used to seeing this part of the bay.” I try and agree with him. The sea is itching at the sand; the sky is black.
Cheveyo was right. The crane stands above us, huge. It is taller than the tree father told us about; it is taller than a giant, even the giant men of the forest who mother says she is a descendent of. Small lights glow at the top of it, above the cloud. This is reassuring to me: if the crane is tall enough to break the clouds it must be tall enough to break the sky.
I grow dizzy looking up at it, and my brother lays a hand on my shoulder.
“All we have to do now is climb it,” he says. With that he is jumping onto the ladder running the terrifying length of the thing. He starts scrambling up this ladder like a cat as it escapes from the dogs. A harsh bright light illuminates his figure; he is grinning, and he looks crazy.
“Come on,” he shouts at me from his perch above my head. “It’s easy.” He continues scrambling, and then pauses on about the twentieth spoke, probably to catch his breath.
My cheeks burn with something like shame. I wait for inspiration, some bravery or courage or even a brief shard of numbness to eclipse my fear for a moment but nothing comes. And so I begin climbing the ladders with the brittle, terrified bones of a boy. I close my eyes and feel my spirit shrinking and sinking low to the ground, where my body wants to be. Up above I hear the hard clanging of my brother’s ready feet as he begins moving again.
“Say,” Cheveyo calls down to me as we climb. “What do you think space is like?”
“Black and big and flat,” I call back faintly. My fear dissipates slightly, though, as my words are released, as if the terror is a huge house inside of me composed of loose words instead of loose bricks. Realising this, I continue talking, howling my fear through my chattering teeth and into the empty night.
“Or do you think it’s flat like the sky or the sea?” I shout. “Or like the mouth of a whale as it bellows into the deep? Maybe the moon is the place where the people in space live, where we will meet others like us. Maybe the stars are not very far away suns, like father says they are, but are the souls of dead sailors lost to the rages of the sea, and we’ll get to talk to them and ask them what really happens when the ocean meets the horizon.
“It’ll probably smell like space as well, like the opposite of mother’s hugs: a long cold smell that tastes of metal and all the places the air has touched. The taste and smell will probably feel like the sound: it’ll be silent, and in the core of the silence there’ll be a low hum which goes on and on because it is so quiet. It’ll be so quiet that the quiet will make a sound. The sailors won’t break the silence because they don’t need to talk to each other: they’ve had enough empty time to share all their stories already.
“But do you think it’ll rain a lot there? Do you think the air will be still or do you think there’ll be storms? Yes, massive monstrous storms that rumble and thunder and pour. But then do you think there’s a sky in space for the storms to happen in? If there isn’t a sky what is there? There could be a window like this one, and then there could be another space leading on from that, and another space leading on from that one, and another space leading on from that one and so on. Or could it go on forever? Cheveyo, do you really think space could go on forever, like the spirit?”
“I don’t know,” he admits, “but we’ll soon find out. We’re half way there now, I think.”
And we are. I open my eyes and the ground is so far away it seems like a dream or a distant memory.
We continue to climb in silence, our bodies moving in almost perfect synchronization. My breaths are heavy in my throat and my muscles burn, but my head feels light and free, like an eagle soaring.
By the time we reach the top, the black horizon is turning a vague honeycomb orange colour.
“We must hurry now,” Cheveyo says. But he just stands there on the platform of the crane, the harsh wind rippling his clothes. His shoulders are slumped slightly, and, from behind, he almost looks like our father: disappointed and tired. I look upwards, expecting to see space, but all I see is black.
“What do we do now?” I ask. “I don’t think we’re high enough to reach the window.” I stand on tip-toes and reach upwards, straining my arms and wiggling my fingers. They touch no glass, though.
“Cheveyo?” I say because he is still standing there. “What should we do?”
“I don’t know,” he says quietly. “I thought once we got to the top it’d be here.”
“Well it has to be here somewhere,” I say.
I begin to walk around the platform, stepping around my brother to search the four corners of it for signs of space or further uplift. I try and walk across the metal bridge leading to some kind of small cabin, but get too scared of falling. Even I know it is futile though: we’re clearly not high enough.
“Maybe the crane jumps,” I suggest, flopping down at my brother’s feet because the platform is so small that there isn’t really anywhere else to flop down. “Maybe that’s how they get down from space.”
“The white men.”
I am suddenly aware of a reversal of positions: it is me consoling him now, instead of the other way around. I feel giddy, despite the fact that we didn’t make it into space. We’ve never been this far away from our parents before, nor ever done anything as daring as this, and I tell Cheveyo so as I look across at the land that is slowly creeping into focus as the sun rises in the east.
I see the dense green of a forest towards the north, and, just beside the forest, I see a cluster of small white houses with red roofs. I stand up and search for our house. I spot a white dot huddled close to the shoreline, and decide that that must be it.
“Cheveyo,” I say. “Come and see our house.”
“I’ve seen it so many times before,” he says sulkily, but he stands by my side anyway and nods as my finger points.
“What do you think mother and father are doing right now?” I ask.
“Wondering where we are,” he replies.
“Yes,” I agree. It is not an unpleasant thought, but rather a manly one, an alone one.
We then hear the clanging of heavy feet on the ladder. A bright white face appears from under the platform, and the body of a large man follows it.
He looks at us strangely: his heavy red mouth hangs open, and his blue eyes twitch like they’re eating. His dark eyebrows move upwards and downwards as if punctuating the bites his eyes are taking of us; there is no hair on his head whatsoever.
His hanging mouth shuts suddenly, and then opens again to let out a barking hum of a noise which sounds like a word. Another noise escapes this way, then another and then another until it seems he is purposefully showering us with the musical grace of his tongue.
It occurs to me that this man is a white man, and so I smile. Father always tells us to be friendly to those you happen to meet, even if they are white men. He holds up his hands, which are red like his mouth, and then runs across the bridge to the cabin, shutting the door behind him.
I hear air escape Cheveyo’s lungs.
“Do you think we’re in space now, then?” I ask.
“How’d you figure that?”
“Well, there’s a white man,” I begin, thinking.
I catch sight of the white man through the window of the cabin, staring at us and moving his mouth. Mother calls the white men invaders, but this man is not invading anything. He picks up a large, black, rectangular shaped object and holds it to his ear, and his other arm begins flailing wildly in the air. He watches us like a cornered animal, and I’m reminded of a mouse being shoved into the wall by the greedy feet and hands of those chasing it. No: this man is clearly the one experiencing invasion, not the other way around.
“Of course we’re in space,” I confirm. I nod wisely with that bend in my neck which adults seem to have when they teach. “Someone must’ve left the window open. I just didn’t think it’d be this big.” I look at the moon, and it glows faintly in the distance, as if being slowly sapped of light. “I mean, the moon is still so far away, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go home then,” Cheveyo says. “I’m too tired to go to the moon now.”
“I’m not,” I say, but he is already climbing down the ladder. I notice his face is relieved in the way that father’s never is.