Ashleigh McNamara tells me on the bus to school that my house is haunted. Her brother says so, and he says everyone in town knows. There’s no denying something solid and strange once stood on the soil that my mother spent her life savings on last year in a demented act of middle-aged crisis: too many people old enough to remember have cast enough sorts of looks for us to go on believing otherwise. Either way, all that’s left now is an old leaning Queenslander and, down the front paddock, a fenced-in swimming pool with a slide. You have to go through a thick, crumbling fiberglass forest structure just to find the steps, and climb up all the way inside just to slide out the other end into the pool. Inside the forest, you become so cold you don’t feel like swimming anymore. You don’t feel like anything. The forest sucks all the sun out of you.
Hannah’s sitting cross-legged on a deck chair next to the pool, watching her brother kiss me. Hannah’s eight. Her parents think that if they leave her home alone she’ll die: she will try and make dinner and explode a microwave, she will go foraging for mushrooms over at the CSIRO and get stoned out of her little girl brain, she will crawl and crawl on her hands and knees until she’s stuck between worlds. This is what her brother tells me, why he brings her with him always. Their parents aren’t keen on either one of them being at my place. They think Mum’s weekly knitting group is actually a coven and that we only eat white bread, not wholemeal. They think I deflowered Hannah’s brother. They think this because it’s true.
‘I once read a story,’ I say, ‘about a woman in medieval times, who was married to some kind of lord, but he wasn’t very nice to her.’ I stop and look over at Hannah.
‘Do you know about how a long time ago, fathers would sell their daughters to whoever had the most money?’
‘Yeah,’ Hannah says, even though I can tell she doesn’t know, not really. I watch as a skink skuttles its way into the shade of one of the deck chairs. It’s hot today, so hot I think that if I cracked an egg onto the concrete under our feet it would cook all the way through. I think about the old weird house up on the hill behind us, and about how my mother would probably have the air conditioning going in the living room. But Hannah wants to swim, and I don’t really feel like having Hannah and her brother in the house when my Mum has people over.
‘Okay, well, it was like that. So she was married to this really gross lord, but he went away a lot on business. And she fell in love with another guy. Every time her husband would go out, her lover would come to their castle or whatever, and they’d…hang out.’
‘So she was cheating on her husband,’ Hannah’s brother says.
‘Well, yeah, but it’s fine. She didn’t choose to marry him, remember? But one day, her husband catches them, and he locks them up in the dungeon, in separate rooms. He’s fired all their servants, and whatever, so no-one will ever find them. There’s no way for them to get out, and the walls are so thick that their voices can’t reach each other. She doesn’t hear her lover being tortured. She doesn’t hear the screaming. So they’re in there for ages, like a really long time. She’s barely being fed anything at all. Scraps, mostly, on a good day. But anyway, one day, her husband says that he’s sorry, and brings her a nice, juicy steak.’
‘Jesus, Lisa,’ Hannah’s brother says. ‘She’s only eight.’
The sun on my back and legs and arms is so hot it feels like its own form of torture. My flesh feels like its being cooked through; like I’m being baked to death, slowly, to be fed to my own lover. I don’t like the heat. I am not a child of summer. Evidently neither is Hannah, because she stands up, deliberately, and begins to shed her clothes like a snake wriggling out of its own skin. She shakes off her denim shorts, pulls her singlet over her head and next thing she’s in the water in her knickers. Hannah’s brother takes off his shirt too, and leaps into the pool in his boardies, pretending he’s going to land on top of her, and I think not for the first time that it would be nice not to be an only child.
‘Come in,’ Hannah says to me. ‘The water’s nice.’
I’ve left my swimmers up at the house, all the way across the hot, stabby grass. Mum is inside with her knitting group.
‘Can’t be bothered going to get my togs,’ I tell Hannah. I stretch out on the bricks that surround the pool, and wiggle my clammy toes, trying to feel a breeze between them. My back burns, and I let a hand dip into the water. It does feel nice.
‘So?’ Hannah says.
‘So – what?’
‘So why can’t you just come for a swim in your knickers like me?’
I look down at Hannah’s brother, floating on his back with his head just below me. I make sense of his upside-down face, and the black bits of our eyes find each other’s.
‘Lisa can’t swim without a shirt on like you, Hannah,’ her brother says.
Our eyes don’t leave each other’s. We know we are trapped. How to explain to an eight-year-old girl that her body will one day be shameful? But then…what else? I think about Hannah’s parents, and how they know my Mum is a witch. I think about what Hannah’s mother would say if I took my clothes off right now, and jumped into the pool with her children bare-chested. I think about dungeons, and very thick walls.
We stare at each other forever.
‘You don’t know anything about him,’ Hannah’s brother says to me finally, and I know he’s talking about the lord from my story. ‘Maybe he donated a lot to charity. Maybe he was a poet.’
With his black hair slicked back on his head, he reminds me of a selkie.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I say. ‘He fed his wife the meat off her boyfriend’s bones. Of course he was a poet.’
I don’t think Hannah’s brother and I are going to last the summer.
I watch Hannah duck underwater, kicking her legs, a thick mass of brown hair floating away from her scalp. She reaches the bottom of the pool and her fingers reach for the rough stone tiles. She pushes up with her palms, moves her body into a handstand. She’s already forgotten about us. At eight years old, she hasn’t yet been taught to feel self-conscious.
I stand up, and arch my back like I’m attempting to move my body into a yoga position. Tonight I will rub my mother’s aloe into my flesh, and tomorrow I will leave little bits of flaky skin against everything I rub.
I look at the thick fiberglass forest in front of me. I step forward, and reach out to touch the sturdy trunks. It’s only a structure, I tell myself, just a frame for a waterslide. It doesn’t seem like a waterslide. It seems like the kind of forest that could eat you up. The kind of forest where nobody would ever find you. The kind of forest where nobody could hear you scream.
I slip inside the forest, and find my way through to the stumpy steps. I climb upwards into the darkness. I listen to the sounds of my own breath, and feel all around me the company of all the other bodies that have wormed their way through this same trunk-like tunnel, up and up. I wonder if they’ve been summoned, somehow, and think about my mother in the living room with a handful of willing women and more yarn than they’ll ever know what to do with. It feels like I’ve been inside this tree for thousands of years. I can’t hear Hannah, or her brother, through the sounds of the flaky fiberglass. I keep putting one foot in front of the other until I can see the sun again.
From my perch in the treetops, I can see Hannah’s brother spread out wet on a decaying deck chair, texting. Then the sun gets into my eyes, and everything goes red and orange and pink and yellow and white. I grab onto the rusting metal chain that keeps a person from falling, and edge my way onto the diving platform.
I pull off the t-shirt that has stuck to my back with sweat, and throw it into the pool below me. Pants too, an unclasped bra. I feel the sun settle into my breasts and thighs. It’s a body, and it works. It’s mine, and Hannah’s, and my mother’s, and a room full of knitting witches and the ghosts of pool-goers past.
I look down at the little pink blob that I know to be Hannah’s face, and I jump.
Image: Nathan Kavumbura