Rare and endangered
Her parents had named her Dale. Dale Bailey Collins, but at home they called her Bailey, each claiming it was the other one that had wanted Dale. And so, Bailey she was for most of her childhood. She liked it, especially when, at around twelve years old, she decided she wanted to be a boy: no need to change her name at all. Confusingly, though, her parents reverted to Dale, to discourage her crossing gender. No matter, Bailey thought, she’d answer to both. It was easy being a boy at that age: jeans, sneakers, baggy t-shirt, short hair. This trans-gender thing was a cinch, she thought, though the boys all thought she wasn’t really tough enough. And of course, one thing was missing. She didn’t care about that. A tom-boy, her grandparents said. She’ll grow out of it, you see.
And she did. Or, she became a little less boyish and a tiny bit more girlish, and was perfectly happy like that. Bailey grew tall and slim, and kept her hair cut close to her head. It was a striking appearance, smooth and taut, like a close-feathered bird. Seeing a documentary one evening on the birds of South America, Bailey’s best friend Frances declared that Bailey was the red-legged mercer, a rare and endangered species of flamingo. Sighted by only a few devoted naturalists, it was estimated that only two hundred of the elegant birds populated the inland jungles. Bailey was delighted with the comparison and from that day, chose the bird and the name as her own. Mercer now wore either red stockings or red stovepipe jeans.
She took up work as a gardener in the estate of Josiah Fleming, a millionaire who had inherited his wealth and was bored. Bored by everything: the day, the night, his money, his food, his clothes, his cars, his garden. His doctor gave him pills but nothing worked, for Josiah’s problem was that disease of the nineteenth-century toff: ennui. With no solution to his langour, Josiah simply waited, lying on his couch in front of a large flashing screen, for the universe to offer him a solution.
And the universe obliged, in the form of Mercer Dale Bailey Collins, cropped hair, long red legs, the new gardener.
Mercer had tried life alone in a cabin in the Tasmanian wilderness, but unlike her namesakes, she was not suited to the reclusive life. She had imagined herself a writer of the silent, broody type, composing sparse, simple stories heavy with subtext, but it was not to be. She tried observing the birds around her, and writing poems about them, but she realised that there were no words for the feelings they evoked. Instead of writing, she gathered sticks and moss and constructed nests on the ground around her hut large enough for her to curl up her long red legs and rest. This was, she felt, her own form of poem. With that new knowledge, Mercer headed back toward civilisation, but not too close: ‘Flemington Lodge’, Josiah’s grand house flanked by acres of garden.
Kyle, the head gardener, had been uneasy about this lanky girl, but Josiah, startled into life by her long red legs, was clear: she would have the job. Collecting flowers for the huge vases scattered around the house, planning designs for the flowerbeds, arranging evening parties on the back lawn, Mercer’s job was a mixture of whimsy and practicality. While Kyle sweated and built his muscles digging and planting, Mercer thumbed through design magazines, dreamed up theme parties, exotic settings, fantastic arrangements for food and clothes. Her birds’ nests became her trademark feature, built from willow, wool, cotton, rich silks and silver threads, sequins, feathers and leaves. Guests were at first bemused and suspicious, then curious and playful. By the end of the evening each nest held someone or several, asleep, satiated with sex, play, fantasy and the secret comfort of returning to the womb.
Josiah found all this stirring in ways that he could not quite understand. One clear midnight, when the guests had snuggled up for the night, he coaxed Mercer into a nest lined with swan down and made nervous love to her. Mercer was kind, though unmoved by him, a rejection that Josiah reluctantly accepted.
As the nest theme began to weary, Mercer turned to thoughts of an evening party where light would be the feature. She thought of lighting up the trees, but that was already done; lights in the ponds, lights from the roof of the house, lights lining the paths, the maze, the labyrinth — it was pretty, but not what they needed. After days strolling through the grounds, peering at trees, flowers and bushes, watching birds and lizards, and even more days hunting through books, magazines and the internet, Mercer came upon someone who could help her design and project lights onto the grand expanse of the house, transforming it into a Tibetan mountain, an iceberg slowly fracturing, a swarm of bees, an underground cavern, a moonscape, a sky filled with plump white clouds, anything she could dream up. Ainsley Crimson was the light expert with a studio in the city, but she would be leaving in five days to spend a year meditating in Uzbekistan. Determined to meet with her, however briefly, Mercer left the next morning for the six-hour journey. It should have been a simple trip in Josiah’s Saab, but strange things can happen on the open road.
She was sitting on her backpack by the side of the road, thumb in the air, legs stretched out in front, her hair pulled into two tight plaits. Mercer stopped, of course. Her name was Casey, Casey Drew, and she was wandering really, with no real plans, though she hoped that her journeys would turn eventually into a novel. Mercer smiled and opened the passenger door.
An hour later, on a long straight ribbon of road, the car broke down. What happened next seemed like a dream, and perhaps it was. They climbed out and walked away from the car to consider, leaning on the tight, twanging wires of a fence. They found the paddock of wheat, yellow and vast, irresistible. Running, rolling, jumping and laughing, they made tracks, corn circles, faces, stick figures and finally, weary, a nest big enough for both of them. Casey’s face above her, her body warm and close, Mercer saw the sky darken almost to black and laughed. This was what she had been waiting for: the storm, the deluge, the lightning of flesh that would wash her away. For a time, it felt that the world with its colours and sounds and smells had tunneled down into this wheat field and the two bodies at its centre.
Casey decided to stay in the nest and begin writing her novel about an endangered bird. With a long kiss, Mercer walked back to the road and hitch-hiked into the city.
When she rang the doorbell there was no answer. A neighbour opened her door enough to whisper that Ainsley had left only that morning, just like that, off to some strange exotic country. Then the door on the other side opened wide and a man with silver hair announced that Ainsley was indeed at home, but not to be disturbed while she worked on her latest light project. Mercer sat at the door and waited, her long red legs crossed in front of her; even without sticks or feathers she could make a nest of a doorway.
The flash woke her from sleep. At first she thought she was blind, but the weak glimmer of moonlight in the window showed her that the lights were out all over the city. Strangely, though, blue light shone beneath Ainsley’s door, and from inside, the sound of whooping and laughing. Abandoning manners, Mercer pushed through the front door only to find herself awash in an ocean, waves of blue light lapping against the walls, splashing at doors and chairs in wet white lace. She waded in and swam toward Ainsley who was laughing, spinning and tossing the light into phosphorescent bubbles above her head.
It would not last, they both knew, but that was not the point. For the next hour they dived deep, swam like mermaids, coiled and flipped and glided, came together in the brief ecstatic touch of dolphins, knowing the pleasure of water, flesh and light to be one.
As the city lights came on, one by one, the blue ocean of light faded, and with it, the two women.