It’s the give of the earth: a shifting of clods under her running feet. Most of the children’s graves in the cemetery are marked with stones with names and dates on them, or sometimes with a rusted brown metal marker that has just a number on it pushed into the ground at the head of a mound of dirt. But then there are these ones, with no markers, overgrown with grass, sunken level with the rest of the ground, and she knows it’s easy to walk over one of those, thinking it’s just a space between graves, before she feels the falling-through; the shifting. She’s made a mistake. Dropping her handful of wild freesias and egg-and-bacon flowers on the ground, she turns and runs. It’s the kind of running that isn’t fast enough, though. She can push harder and make her feet go quicker, so quick she might stumble and fall, grazing her knees and hands and her grandmother will have to pick out gravel and wipe away the blood, but still it feels like she’s only running up and down on the spot and digging herself in closer to the child in the ground.
She likes to play in the cemetery. Beyond the willow tree at the back of her grandparents’ yard, and past the shed with the open front where the old tractor lives with its crackled pink skin that her uncles say was once red, the back gate leads out to the gravel road. She’s allowed to cross it carefully with her brother and their cousin. Across the road is the cemetery where they can let themselves in through the gate. She’s never been to a funeral, never known anyone who has died, but she knows that most of the dead people whose pictures are on the walls of the old house in the bush where her great-grandmother lives with her brother, are buried here. The older part of the cemetery is where she plays, among the graves from the gold-rush times, the chalky stone graves with long names like names from books on them. She puts flowers on the graves of the people who once lived in the old house out in the bush. And she seeks out the graves of children and lays one flower on each grave. She can never make it around to all of them. The cemetery is filled with children’s graves. Her great-grandmother tells her lots of children died back then, many of them of a disease called scarlet fever that makes her imagine them all coloured in with the scarlet pencil from her pencil case.
It’s easy to miss the unmarked children’s graves. They can look just like a patch of grass between other graves. But if she steps on one, there’s that movement in the ground, the shifting from hard ground to softer earth that moves when she stands on it, and now she must leap away before she sinks in. It’s not just the dirt that shifts. The world shifts: she watches the sky tilt. She knows that in that shifting, she is not just herself. She is partly herself and partly the child in the ground. The child murmurs. She hears. The child turns. She feels the roll in the soles of her feet. She knows not to tell anybody, but she has been the child in the ground. Maybe not this child, right here, in this grave, but she has been the child in the ground, and she knows without saying the words in her head that she can be that child again. She can be one child with one life in this moment, and then another child in another life in another moment, if she is not careful. She leaps up and away from the falling-through and she runs, her gaze set on the gate out of the cemetery.
Indigo Perry’s first book, Midnight Water: A Memoir, was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. ‘The Give’ is an excerpt from her forthcoming second memoir, Darkfall, to be published by UWA Publishing in 2020. Indigo is a senior lecturer in Writing & Literature at Deakin University.