watch, read, listen, observe, absorb
This story appeared in the Spineless Wonders anthology, Stoned Crows & 0ther Australian Icons, which was launched at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2013. It has also been performed by actors in Adelaide and Sydney.
In the seconds before the machete blade severs my slim right wrist I think, Iggy was wrong; I can’t stay whole in a city of mutants and missionaries.
I wake in the basement in the dark and reach out to touch my brother Isaac sleeping next to me. My hand lifts then falls softly onto the cold damp sheet. The moisture that drips from my ceiling to the slimy sandstone floor smells sulphurous. Grey light peeks through the grime on the only window; a single pane of Perspex marginally above the water line. During a storm I sleep in my dinghy.
I’ve been alone for a decade of my fifteen years. Isaac left just two years after the wave consumed the city and then sucked back, taking our parents with it. I don’t remember the before-time, when this place was called Sydney. Pushing away the tattered oily blanket I dress myself in clothes that hide my intact frame, my unblemished skin, the venerated flesh that is my curse.
I skate the roof tops on a labyrinth of paths and bridges fashioned from debris and liberated building materials. You can cross Opera City this way, from building to building, over the choppy, dirty canals below. It’s to avoid the missionaries. There’s one on every pontoon, each vying to attract the vulnerable. Those who have been driven mad with grief. Those who have lost more than me. They are many and growing.
The market is full, despite the early hour. People jostle for position to secure a meagre bunch of pale green seaweed. There’s nothing else. Their skin is knotted and scarred, their sallow eyes shot with blood, the limbs they have left are mutilated and mangled. At the side of the market a hawker trades semi-smart prosthetics made from discarded dishwasher parts. Their electronics crackle and fuse in the red fog. I veer away and pull my hood down over my brow.
Ten minutes in I see it. A trader is harangued by man whose face looks like it has melted in the sun. His skin hangs in heavy jowls from his jaw, the red of his inner eyelids slack and infested with maggots. They’re arguing over the cost of the swamp tobacco that’s now unattended. I sidle in close and reach. A metal claw clamps around my right wrist. I try not to resist but it hurts. My captor is a woman, a trader from the next stall. Her nose is a cavernous hole. I can hear the air whistle through it deep into her lungs. She smells like rot.
‘What are you up to?’ Her voice thick like a clogged drain.
I pull away. My hood drops back. Shocked, she drops my wrist and hisses, crossing her chest with her claw. She says only one word: Whole. The crowd is silenced, caught by surprise, then they press against me, jostling for a look. Their cries ripple, from urgent whispers to incredulous wails that combine to a chant: Whole, whole, whole. I shove my way to the edge of the market, pressing through my panic against the flesh and fake limbs that are craving to touch me.
Iggy sucks gratefully from a joint dangling from his fat bottom lip, the paper soggy with saliva. I can’t stand the stuff; the mustard yellow smoke smells like possum crap.
‘Don’t mention it,’ I say.
He looks at me, the jowls on his mangled face quivering. We’re sitting high on The Bridge, our legs dangling into space and skateboards wedged safely behind us. The wind buffets us in strong short gusts.
He raises his hand in protest, his two fingers stiff and scabby. ‘You’re crazy.’
‘I’ve made up my mind’.
‘I won’t let you,’ Iggy says. ‘That’s the thing.’
‘It’s not your decision to make.’
I know that Iggy holds sway over the mutants who occupy the old Opera House. And he owes me. I stand and grab my board.
‘Tell them I’ll give them anything they want,’ I say.
He nods, watching as I climb down to my dinghy below.
We’re inside the concert hall on a mezzanine before a giant organ. Wind whirls into its pipes like whale song. My heart quickens.
A fire burns in an ancient petrol can, a baby bat skewered above. Its singed fur smells like kerosene. Grey water whirlpools in the auditorium below, thick with trash and debris from the surrounding sea. The building creaks as waves break against the outer walls. I’m stretched over a dais, staring up at the thousands of dried body parts that are strung from the ceiling above me. A man with a glass eye and breath like faeces pins me down with one hand and raises his machete with the other.
The pain is exquisite.