Trigger warning: references to rape and sexual assault
“She was raped, you know.” We are sitting in the car park of a suburban mall.
“It was a man from her church. She never told the kids.” Summer is keeping us in our seats and the safety of the air-conditioned car.
“He pulled a knife and licked blood from her skin.” I haven’t been to the old house so I can’t picture it but I imagine mottled cream carpets.
“She didn’t scream. Didn’t want to wake anyone.”
He comes down the hall a shadow, under the sheets and into her skin. She is a desert in a bed and he opens oasis after oasis across her breasts and inside her thighs. He follows the waterways with slick reptile tongues and after she is stained pink. The colour of raspberry cordial. His shoes are heavy with swagger and he is made solid.
I ask Mum how she knows. She shrugs.
“I’m a social worker.”
Once, she invited a homeless boy to live in our house. Mum didn’t want anyone out in the cold. I told her it doesn’t get cold in Adelaide but she’s from the country, where fishponds freeze overnight, so she didn’t listen.
How did he know? She hadn’t told him. Made sure of it. He has that father face on, waiting to go off. She tries to back away, avoid his spitting but it keeps coming, lapping at her cheeks. Words crawl out of her but most die along the way and who knows what the rest mean. How did he know? Shouting first, fists later.
She kills the ignition and fumbles for her handbag. She always keeps it on the seat behind her. She enjoys her twist and reach routine. On the walk from car to cool air, I think of Mary, eyeing me from her plastic kitchen table, looking for my mother. Her smile was sick, green at the edges.
Not the fists, but the feet. One boot in her belly and the other in her back.
My brother told me the black clumps of tar on the road were wads of old chewing gum. Step on them and you would get stuck and birds would peck out your eyes. He smirked the way that only brothers can, behind thick goggle glasses and teenage skin while I tripped over myself. I still avoid the sidewalk stains but today it is hard. The ground is bubbling and melting sinkholes beneath me. Inside, sweat is swapped for snow and recycled air. I’m breathing in other people’s dead skin.
The baby doesn’t come right. The eyes are wrong and this is her punishment. Tired. She is stuck with sweat to polyester sheets and she is never getting up. She will turn beige and be invisible in this ugly room. Night will come and so will the nurses. A woman in a grey suit puts the pink wriggly thing in a house with other wrong things. Museum of mistakes. The baby would get plump and she would be forgotten.
“Why would he drink her blood?”
Eyebrows crash into her eyes.
“Some people have problems.”
I don’t think this is a real answer but it’s the only one she gives. She makes a beeline for Indian and orders a plate of butter chicken. My insides swarm with boredom. Vegetarianism limits the options and my hips are already too wide for summer. I tear off a piece of naan bread and the butter sits heavy on my tongue. It’s worth getting fat for.
She is invisible for years. The sweat has long since dried but she is still stuck. The beige room comes with her everywhere. She wears the sheets like sagging skin into job interviews and churches. She can’t type and she doesn’t know what to pray for so she marries a teacher.
Mum tugs on my sleeve. She wants to go to Noni B. She will try on everything and like nothing. Make that face at the mirror. The one that taught me never to be too appreciative of my own reflection. My friends make fun of the way I look at myself; eyebrows knotted together, lips forming a tiny o. Concerned surprise. I want to know how long the church-going vampire was in gaol.
He is gentle and careless when he presses against her skin. She is diaphanous under his light and lithe limbs, veins beaming blue into the afternoon sun. She speaks to him with her hands in soft circles and god is in the room then and nowhere else. Telling stories in her ear. The kind you hear on Sunday when witches are about.
Her voice is muffled under cotton dresses and behind change room doors.
“He didn’t go to gaol. She didn’t report it. Nothing I could do.” She opens the door and spins around. I nod. She tugs at the tight blue over her thighs and disappears. After Noni’s, we visit Sussan’s and then Katie’s and this mall is a brothel full of middle-aged women peddling their wares. She tries on the same dress twelve times. I play too, in pearls and purple shoes, but it doesn’t make time go any faster.
The babies come every two years. They are big and round with brown eyes that will echo well in grandchildren. A woman from the church tells her this means they have come out right. In between, her teacher presses more carelessness against her and she wrinkles into an old woman. She checks them thoroughly, regularly. Can’t see how thick arms and squawking could come from an invisible mother. So she checks. Herself and then the babies. Toes first, then fingers. Arms, legs, measured, stretched. Lights in their eyes and down their throats. Especially diligent with her daughter.
“It’s ok. He died not that long after it happened.” I can’t help but laugh. She wants to reassure me. Bad things happen to bad men. It’s ok because they all die eventually.
She cuts her finger on the divorce papers. She wants to laugh but the blood shocks her. She thought she had given it all away. The teacher takes the children and the furniture. She stays behind with the shadows.
The shops are closing soon and Mum has to be on a plane to Sydney early tomorrow morning. Sweat sticks my legs to the plastic leather of the bored-man bench in the corner of the fitting room.
She wakes wet all through. Her bones bobbing in the waves of her body and she, spluttering against the tide. Standing, the sheets fall away and she shivers till she is blue and not beige. Not invisible anymore.
I tell her no one cares what she’ll be wearing at the funeral. She ignores me.
“These will be perfect.” She holds up a black jacket and navy blue pants. They don’t match.
Image: Tirza van Dijk
Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.