The Wandering Nature of Us Girls
When we see the lake, when we see the strange blue colour, and no ducks and no fishes, just clumps of reeds at the side, when we sniff the air we tell ourselves there are dead men drowned in those waters and the lake is a bad place but another day when us girls are bored of whacking the stalks of foxgloves and bored of pulling live cicadas off the manukas to buzz in our fists, when we say let’s go to the lake again, when we lose our way through the manukas and stumble down a rocky track and the rock face still has got red ochre there, when we scrape the rock with our fingernails, when we sniff, lick it to see if it smells like paint, when a man comes up from the lake, his boots sloshing with wet, when we press our backs to the rocks, when he walks right past us, when we smell the dank lake smell, the weedy smell of him, when he suddenly turns to give us a terrible look, when we skedaddle back over the rocky track, loose stuff coming down like sugar spill, when we’re back home is when we say: we saw a ghost, a drowned man, then everyone says there is no lake, there has never been a lake, when we show them our fingers smudged red, when our daddy shakes his head, says we are crazy girls, when we swallow all our words about the lake, so that later when a little boy goes missing, when night comes and the men come over the paddock with torches is when everyone asks: where is the lake, where is the lake, spit it out youse girls, we’re talking about your lake.
Because a little boy went missing, same day as we saw the man come up from the lake, we said he probably drowned the boy but because nothing bad ever happened in this town and because we were the sort of girls that people didn’t think much of = because we played in the dump and came home limping on wooden crutches and didn’t wash our hands = and because our hands were always grabbing things; the husks of cicadas, golden and crackly, the throats of medicine bottles, metal funnels and once a stethoscope from the dump that half worked = we lay down on the pine needle floor of our sanitorium and because it was the Chest ward we took turns squeezing each other’s wrists, listening to each other’s heartbeats, ba boom, ba boom, ba boom because that’s how you could tell if a person was alive or dead, but if a person was in the water, you wouldn’t know, you’d just see them go round and round like a water logged cicada, their cries getting slowly weaker.
Sometimes we dream of mama, she swims through a mess of suitcases, bodies, sometimes she holds presents aloft in her hands, but other times she is trapped in the train, her blurred face at the carriage window, fishes swimming past.
When us girls play in the sanitorium dump, the dump of yellowish medicine bottles and cracked china pans, old canvas stretchers, and notebooks, all the notes about the patients, all the stuff about the TB and their blood and bones, when we feel sad in the dump, standing there in the sunlight, ankle deep in paper, thinking how young and strong we are, when we look up at the sanitorium, the shining glass windows, where they park the sick outside in the sun, when we see them, covering their heads with newspaper, us girls say we’ll build a new sanitorium, with Baby Jesus’s help we will mound up the pine needles, mound up four walls under the shady tree and we clap for the sanitorium, hands sticky with resin, we clap for our sanitorium that cures the sick, that has those folk rising to walk to the corner store for fizzy drink and smokes, and when we crouch down to make special cures, crushed leaves, dandelions, elder berries, and dreg s drained from medicine bottles, so all the sick people can walk to the store, jingling their money in their dressing gown pockets, when we mix the potion, shake it up and hold the bottle to the light, when we sit inside our sanitorium, holding our bottles, hearing the magpies on the fence, when we say who will drink this potion, when we hear the McNelly kid, the one with the harelip, when we hear him, humming to himself as he climbs up the track, us girls look at each other with our knowing look, we look right into each other’s eyes, the yellow glint of our eyes, our faces stretching a smile.
Chin up girls, they say, when our mama left on the train, chin up we say to the kid, holding the medicine bottle to his lips, chin up, says our daddy who forgets to bring groceries back home from the store, only soap and tobacco, chin up, head up, we say to the boy as our hands settle on his shoulders and chin up we whisper to the cicadas with torn off wings as we grasp their bodies, settle them under the manuka trees and chin up youse girls they say after the terrible news mama’s train plunged off a bridge into the river, and chin up we say again to the boy when we lead him outside our sanitorium and into the sun where he blinks nervously and we each take a hand and raise our faces to the warmth and wonder if it’s worth doing a prayer and wonder if that might save us.
Frankie McMillan is a poet and short story writer from New Zealand/Aotearoa. Her latest book, 'The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions, ' was published by Canterbury University Press. Recent work appear in Best Microfictions 2021, Best Small Fictions 2021, Atticus Review and The New Zealand Yearly Poetry book.