The photographs try to evoke a nostalgia that never comes. I search long forgotten faces, tracing their similar lines of noses and limbs, but they awaken nothing sentimental in me. What has come is a memory, as suffocating as quicksand, of the land that I’ve left behind. In the pictures I hold, beyond the lined up figures from long ago, is a wilderness so wild I can still picture the austere heft of it; the great height of gums and the deep shade they called you into.
In my mind I’m a little girl again with gumboots up to my knees and scratches on my elbows. I’m following Norah through the deep grass, stomping to frighten off snakes. Bird noise whips through the air and heat presses us down. Norah’s ahead of me, and I can make out her dark bouncing hair, her red singlet in the shadow of the eucalypts. She’s leaving me behind and my legs can’t wade through the grass fast enough.
My own child, Emme, wants me. I’m snapped back to the present, leaving thoughts of that wasteland behind for now. Her little arms grab at my shins – she’s trying to haul herself up and so I sweep her to me. Her soft skin, the dough of her cheeks warms me. I’m too cold from memory.
The light hasn’t fully broken and I’m rocking the morning in with my babe. I’ve slanted the blinds to welcome the sun and Emme squirms as she slowly surfaces to consciousness. I love the light. It brings warmth to my bones; I unfold with it each day. Norah laughed at me when I was afraid of the dark. She told me not to be such a baby but she grabbed my hand under the blanket and I knew she didn’t really mean it.
I still visit that place in nightmares. There’s no beautiful sepia that washes over my recollections. I’m so far away and I try, try to redeem that place but the only thing that emerges from the mud of memory is bright Norah, refracting Norah. I’d wake up to the heavy dark, the haunted song of trees in the wind, and reach for her. She’s multicoloured in my dreams. She transcends the creaking floorboards and the low, growling murmurs of our father in another room. She’s a beam in my mind. Ahead, above, around, beyond – never fully with me.
The sun’s here in fullness. Emme’s in motion and so is the day. I tumble after her, shake loose of my memories. It’s going to be a bright one.
I couldn’t see the tops of those trees; their gnarled trunks stretched endlessly like the sinewed legs of stone giants. I thought I could hear those Goliaths talking some grey afternoons. Amongst their roots it would be eerily still, but the thick canopy hummed secrets. Norah couldn’t stay away from that place and I couldn’t stay away from her.
On the afternoon I followed her for the final time, the air was particularly stagnant. I could hear her cracking steps through the undergrowth ahead until they stopped. I was so alone in that vast wilderness – it took me hours to find my way back, branch-scratched and shrieking. Norah, a waterlogged Ophelia, was found the next day in the creek that split the forest in two, her red singlet a flag staking new ground. She’d left me behind forever.
The old photographs are fanned across my dining table. I look over them in the brief moments that Emme’s occupied with some toy. There’s only one with Norah clearly in it, in all the others she’s a blur of jolted movement or shadow. Our father, stern eyed and grim mouthed, subtly grips the cloth of her shirt with his left hand, trying to hold her in place. She looks trapped, frustrated. Norah was always moving so fast, I knew she’d trip herself up one day.
I tell Emme to slow it down on her own stumbling feet. She doesn’t wear red, I’m glad she’s blonde. She, too, is luminous. I cling to her for air as I strain against the suck of hard memory. I’ll try not to pull her down with me.
Hannah Macauley-Gierhart is a writer, teacher, mother, and voracious reader. She has an MA in Creative Writing through Macquarie University, receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Academic Excellence for her work there. She is a fiction reader for Overland literary journal and 2017 saw n her undertake a fiction internship with Kill Your Darlings and participate in the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program. Her work has appeared in places like Overland, Right Now, Writer’s Edit, and The Huffington Post. In the midst of this and the joyous bedlam of raising small children, she is seen writing at strange hours, drinking lots of tea, and loving the chaos that fuels good prose.