Child I was under the weight of dark dark universes. Heavy weighed a lot of scary roars chucked at me but in my mind. Grew short too small for age five years. When in 1964. Ages ago now. In prettified place I lived sixties. Saw these times paths cemented crazy paving led to front doors pleasant houses on Wonga Avenue near Bantry Bluff. Always summer picnics at the beach. Face slathered pink zinc cream melted. Made my nose look stupid. Always sat alone on the sand. Warm sand dreaming between toes. Always not digging the sand with yellow plastic spade. Not even building a sandcastle. But just. Child gazed at far horizons any ones. And my mother got worried. About what. Always far horizons. Where my mind was. So decided it was. Confidence mine needed a boost. Get doing dancing, gymnastics, joining the school choir.
First square danced bite my lip. Dark dark universe this midday heat bore down stared down. At what. No that way. Second grade class all perspiring. What did why performing silly square dance. On boiling concrete. In school playground. Who people these made me. Dark universe roared. I felt this weight of gawking hands, clapping eyes clapped. Parents, teachers, entire school crowded in circle watching twenty wilting children. Started on the right foot. No. No turned this way spun a bit wrong. I trying really hard tried trip sashay allemande left-hand swing. But the dark. The roar. The terror I fled. Celestial child in flight fright. Faster than a comet in orbit. In her blood that solar system streaked through. Jelly legs running. Skedaddled quick. Where cometed straight into concrete kindergarten toilet block. After me fat Miss Hassel let her go. Old Hassel not fast enough this flesh wobbler like elephant in baggy cotton gingham. Stench of sweat underarms wet spit hissing.
‘Come Back Here Ernestine.’
But that darkest and roared. So fragile Phillip awful embarrassment. Turned quite pink at the had to dance twirl, chain right hand star with another boy. Why because. The last girl partner available was on the run. I was. I was. Safe now kneeling in front of the loo smelled of wee. Eyes watering. Mouth vomiting milky breakfast into that toilet bowl. Then trembling hand pressed the flush button. Just as this happened. Roll of toilet paper unraveled life of its own rolling under the door across the floor white strip rolled away away.
Next junior gymnastics got a bit confident in. Skipped wildly with older girls. I flailed little penguin arms skidding along surface of the ocean. Had burst of inspiration like a sea creature darting from its shell. I did shrieked this great confidence.
‘Hooray! If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet.’
Stomped little feet of happy. But Miss Hassel grabby dragged me from gymnasium. Into the corridor. Fatty hands shouted slapped me for showing off.
‘Stand in that corner Ernestine. Face the wall. Nobody likes a show-off.’
Struck across the cheek. Slapping stung tears show-off. Stomped anxious in my head. Now this creature. Delicate tendrils hacked off by cranky teacher. Off off off with her head.
Third thing to bring myself to self-confidence. School choir rehearsed what for.
This gala concert. Mr Wright, the choirmaster instigated. Mr Wright leaden man. Cheap suit, springy hair, disgusting moles, intense eyes all grey. He conducted the choir as if plucking large bugs from the air. Sometimes scolded us kids bug-eyed.
‘Whatever is the matter with you Ernestine? I see a bulge in your cheek Reginald. I forbid bubble-gum. Spit it out this minute. Why are you frowning Ernestine? Quit fidgeting Susie, Bobby, Tracy, Sarah-Jane. You’ll all be the death of me.’
His own eyes got even more alive barking:
‘Do your best children. Sing sing sing from your heart. Yes, that’s it, wherever I may die…’
I squeaky sang. Wondered what death of me was. No one said. And why did Mr Wright’s eyes bark. All at the same time. So this practicing one song. Over and over I love a sunburnt country.
Not long later the night of the performance. Last row lined up tall boys behind us ten girls. Dressed in tartan uniforms. Higgledy piggledy lengths. Skirts supposed to be two inches below bare knees. Those were every school rules. The time choir us all took right places on this big stage behind red velvet curtain blocked out the universe. But I knew. It was out there. I knew it.
Mr Wright raised his arms sleeves rolled up hairy. Flicked the conducting baton. Which was just a pointy stick. The signal. Stage curtains whooshed apart. Saw jam-packed solar system rustled excited parents all staring excitement at us me. Voices hummed. Seemed like growling beasts. Cameras flashed all at stunned choir. This universe came at me. Bright menacing sight blinded. My palms seeped. Great tempest of quivering birds lurched from stomach to bowels. I shut mouth dry tight might heaving. Legs clenched together terrified of peeing my pants. Everything hurtling to me. Avalanched at me.
Mr Wright sniffed. Mr Wright glared me hard. Went into my brain. Don’t you dare. Run. Arched his two pinkies this crooked signaling at that pianist. Erect spine seated at piano. Poised to erupt. She smashed loud out the opening chords. We children us began to sing, I love a sunburnt country…her beauty and her terror the wide brown land for me.
My mouth opened but nothing came out. Not sick birds beauty the wide brown land. Run I thought. So I ran. Comet child dashed away away from devouring faces. From harsh rap rap rapping of Mr Wright’s stick. I beauty. I terror. And wide brown land. This none of it for me.
Miss Hassel stood big angry sweat in stage wings. Large horrified. Hands on hips outrage, she wrinkly mouthed:
Come. Back. Here. Ernestine.
Children’s voices rose in unison sweet I ran. Sounded sort of chirruping. But much louder, higher madder. Every what choir child must stay put face the music. Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly. I knew. And the brown country homing thoughts flying I might die. But didn’t want anyone to see.
My mother missed the sight of me comet child scarpering across the stage. She just saw this. In the first row, the blank space where I wasn’t. Where should be standing but wasn’t. She did I expected anxiously half rose from her seat. Strained her neck. She must have.
The end of the performance. I heard enthusiastic parents clap talk all at once:
‘That was pretty good.’
‘Those kids knew every word by heart.’
‘Someone should tell Pamela to keep her knees together.’
‘Mr Wright seemed a bit cross.’
I thought he was.
‘Why did the littlest girl run?’
Because of joke of why did the chicken cross the road. Why. To get to the other side.
Chairs scraping I heard scraped on the wooden floor. The audience shuffling outside. I remembered about trestle tables loaded with aluminum kettle pots. Of this scalding tea everyone. Paper plates laden with iced finger buns lamingtons baked by the other mothers and transported inside Tupperware containers to provide supper every person there. I knew about this.
But wondered. Did my mother hurry backstage? She did somehow found me comet stalled bent at the waist. Wishbone shoulders hunched shuddering child retched the dark and roar, bile, phlegm, the showing off, skipping, singing, doing my best tried tried hard, the wherever I may die. Everything of the nothingness left inside child I was. And cried:
‘Sorry Mum.’ All the same time at. All all all. Brown thoughts. Sunburnt homing. Died dying inside tiny child.
My mother, always dying for a cup of tea. Never knowing what to say, except said:
‘Listen Ernestine you’ve got to try harder. Singing will help you grow bigger.’
Now I understood. This obvious. This shocking torment. This terror of performing in public. I now knew had prevented me from growing taller.
A slow burning comet waited. And waited to dazzle. I did. Reached far horizons of ten, twenty, forty years. Floods, fires famine stuff like that. Maybe love, hate, sort of a life. Really scorched through my veins. Got to my brain. I mixed them these things. Churned the lot. I whirled whirled didn’t throw up. Again. Faced the dark universe lost the fear. Wrote the roar in my head out with. This. Unstoppable how a comet child blazing across wide brown land. On very path of crazy paving zig zag. Solar system kissed me. Lots. Sloppy kisses. Something tossed bunches of roses. Maybe stars. I caught some. Gossamer comet grew much much bigger. The closer got to the sun. Which everything bright wonderful all okay. I couldn’t explain. Then now. It just was.
Judyth Emanuel has short stories published in Overland Literary Magazine, Electric Literature Recommended Reading, Literary Orphans, Verity La, Intrinsick, Fanzine, Quail Bell, STORGY, One Page and Joiner Bay, and The Margaret River 2017 Anthology. Her stories are forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Thrice Magazine, and PULP Literature. She is a finalist in The Raven Short Story Contest, semi-finalist for the Conium Review Flash Fiction Contest and shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Prize. In 2016 she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at Varuna Writers House NSW. And her collection was suggested for the Writer’s Victoria Personal Patron’s Scheme. In 2013, she was accepted into the One Story Writers Workshop at the Centre For Fiction in New York. Find Judyth on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @judythewrite.