Inpatient

Winner of the People's Choice award in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021

There’s a snail in the laundry, slippery and prone; wrapped in filmy gauze and crunchy shell. She’s followed the trail of the morning glory through the broken window and down the rusted tin of wood lacquer. I recognise the restless look in her slow-motion gaze. The tag on the back of my t-shirt scratches dully and my left eye keeps twitching – I got up too late, the milk is sour and clumpy. I think of the tins of sardines in my cupboard and wonder when I’ll grow to hate the grit of their tiny spines on my teeth. 

The washing machine is stuck, souped shut with grey slimy water. I can hear the clothes slap against the hull. The manual is on my laptop, carefully balanced on the moulding pillows we all forget to put inside when it rains – it always comes so quickly. I squat down and wrench the dial open. From the wheezing machine gushes a tsunami for the slug and the abandoned sock at my feet. I watch the inevitability of gravity snake into the soil, sweet fertiliser for the jacaranda and fern. I stick my hand inside the opening, run a finger round the circumference and feel circular segments slide with me. I grasp an end gently, and it begins to roll out. Soft clinking of pearl on high-shine metal, it slides and slides, but I cannot find the end. Intertwined like some kind of spell are long strands of bluish hair, cobalt zip ties and wispy feathers tied in cherry-stem knots. My calves hurt; I want this to be done. I grope deeper inside the void and it coils around my hand – pulls back with a force which finds the morning glory pulsating with jealousy. 

– 

A spider resting on the part of my nose I can only see with one eye. Hirsute lover of my blinking appendages, she kisses soft but stings. I wonder with a dim curiosity what she is doing with this body. I see with the strangest clarity her sweet boba eyes glimmer on to my own. A pin-prick on my jelly gaze. Scuttle, squeeze, scrape – she’s gone. Later I shiver as she explores the interior of my skull, laugh softly at the disappointment she must feel. Someone else has already spun a web. 

Icy steel on my back. Insects crawling over my thorax, my thighs; trying to find their kin. They glint in the light. They slice me open like a cold spoon in melon. The x-rays don’t show where she’s gone, the nimble spinner! But they’re finding webs all along my bones, dripping with dew. They stop to admire the work, stick sanitised fingers in the crimson soup. Hold the silvery strands up to the light, twisting a finger round and round. Small neat stitches all over the body, an army of unsatisfied ants. 

– 

I spend my days staring up at the sky through the dripping grate above me. Inertia whispers through my eyelashes, curves down my ear, rests in the hollow of my collarbone – exhausted from the exertion. This room is a circular receptacle for my sodden thoughts, clumps of hair and slimy suds rendered soft carpet. Eventually the stink of wild orchid body wash and purple shampoo sluices from my ears, but it clutches at my hair, slick and sticky. I learn from the spindly nurse (who peers down and echoes) that there is an official consensus on my condition. I scrunch my nose and try to look past her obscuring face and into the clouds. I’ve absorbed the spider, but if I stay down where I am it might, if it’s not entirely gone, crawl back out. I nod obediently, but I can feel her, all eight legs tip-tapping on my spine. I run a finger along the scars, wonder if I should let her in. 

Footsteps above me, a light stride that isn’t the nurse’s small pattering. They stop, and my view of the sky is ruptured by a face – a lovely face. Oaken eyes, aquiline nose; smoky pearls dangling at their ears and a sepia bandage curled round their neck. They mouth something to me, but I cannot read their whisper through the grate. The face disappears. I’m left with the lingering grasp of their dragonfly fingers curled over the grate, dirty half-moons reaching to touch. 

– 

I’m allowed to come up sometimes, to lounge on pillows tattooed with mould. It takes me half the time to allow my eyes to unfurl, to accept the glistening sunlight. There is a tree in the corner of the yard, strangled by vines. Both are brown and withered. I see the lovely face I saw before. They’re leaning over a rotting fence. Hey. Their high voice lies thin and raspy on the tilting breeze. I try to say it back but a soap bubble emerges instead. They laugh, and in it I grasp a twitch of birdsong. It strips my tongue of creamy muck, the spider scrambles to hide behind my liver. It’s ok, they say with wry comfort; I’m not too good at talking these days either. 

They’re much older than I first thought; I didn’t catch the web of wrinkles around their mouth. Silver-flecked hair rushes down their back and an old noise band adorns their tank top. The tattoos along their chest have turned a watercolour abstraction of fathomless green. A long scar glints on their neck, soft blue from the veins mapping it. Be careful, a Bowerbird might try and take you home, I say, pointing to the scar. There’s still a soft gurgle to my speech, some underground spring rushing up. Oh they already have, and with this wiry proclamation they open their mouth and twitter a mechanical chirring. 

The heat of the day travels from my sticky thighs to my cheeks. A hidden Myna bird squawks. Some opalescent fear of being rude robs the question from my lips, but determined it writes itself onto my sun-turned face. I was a singer once, got sick of it. Their throat constricts and up comes a rattling cough. Sick from it? I ask softly. You could say that – the looks of people when they heard my voice and wrapped me neatly in their soft-venom of identity. Anyway, I heard about these doctors from my great-aunt. She trains Dalmatians and wanted to be close to them. She’s got these great big splotches all over her now. They shake their head at the memory, hair swimming in the movement. Oh, I interrupt, excited, I think I saw those doctors too. I follow their well-worn gaze along the scars rippling my arms and legs. 

They shake their head and beckon to me. I’m not so used to walking these days, shaky and wet. When I reach them, they sniff, and frown. I forget that I’m immune to the smell of sulfates and bleach. They reach out to my down-turned cheek and carefully remove a long clump of dark hair, carefully pasting it onto the fence next to a pock-marked relic of chewing gum. Grasping my hand, they run my fingers over their scar. We both shiver. How can you do it? I try my own call but it’s all suds and echoes. They reach out their own hand and lightly press on my voice box. The spider jumps. You won’t be able to do it. They changed out half of my voice box and frankensteined it back up with a Bowerbird’s. I can feel it, the stitches and the slightly larger lump to the left. Did the bird die? I mean, was it already dead? Their face becomes inscrutable, almost chastened. I try to clear my gurgling throat; the spider seems caught in the swell. Familiar footsteps down the stairs behind us. I look up to see which nurse it is, and when I turn back around, they’ve flown their perch. Can’t you come in – didn’t I see you before? I whisper out into the decaying palm fronds, broken tongs and abandoned fridge. Some ancient council clean-up left to obscure the view. The nurse reaches around my arms and whispers like a knife; you need your rest. Escorted back down to the hollow of my skull.

– 

Something is tracking slowly across my cheek – only the snail. She’s made a big journey down here, from window to detergent-stained tiles. I pull my hand and out comes the end of the necklace. I feel its warmth, its wetness. Rub my eyes, see the sun dripping into the strangled jacaranda. 

I’m heaving home the shopping when my eye is drawn to a slender speckled bird pulling up worms from underneath someone’s rosemary bush. The worm glints and I lean over the rusty fretwork. Freshwater pearls robbed from the soil. I whisper softly. Oh. One indigo eye stares deep and long. She’ll come out soon enough. The end rips out with a drizzle of dirt, the bird evaporates with the treasure. 

Bending down to pick up the slumping bags my diaphragm surprises me with a heaving cough. A huntsman the size of my palm crawls out of my throat. In horror and wonder I watch her shake off the viscous dew, the trail of snot caressing her teddy-bear abdomen. A farewell nip behind my ear and she’s over the fretwork, spinning out webs of tendon and vein.