She brought with her hither every herb, to the pond of little healths. She brayed each herb, clever device, here by the pond. Every warrior she laid under the water would rise up sleek and sound, without blemish, spot, or hurt on visage or noble body.
from a folk tale.
Early on a Sunday, I rest my head against the window pane. The leaves of the eucalypts are soaked in white, and as the train sinks deep into the mountains, they brush against the scratched glass. Patches of greenish light seep through the trees. The carriage is empty, so I perch my feet on the opposite seat, and the thread at the tip of my socks hangs loose. I hope that my mother can sew it back into place.
I wonder what it will be like. I see my father at the piano, the veins of his hand stretched across the keys. He will ask me to park myself next to him. I see another version of my father, picking unripe oranges from the petal-strewn drive. This version is less likely, because I do not know whether the orange tree has yet grown to blossom, and I do not know who my father has become.
I know that my mother will be in the pond. The water will be warm, clouds of grey mist at the surface. A towel in her hair, she will sink into her deep blue chair. The leather of the seat was torn long ago. I wonder whether she has read the novels I sent from Dublin, Keegan and Enright and McGahern and the little green copy of Dubliners with the title in gold leaf. They will be in a pile by the chair, the pages dogeared.
The eucalypts change to yellow wattles. The train passes through Lawson, Bullaburra, Wentworth Falls, and as it slows into the narrow lanes of Leura, I slip my feet into the clean boots below me. It has been one year.
I am always the one who opens the gate. When I touch the handle, little shards of white paint fall onto me — flecks of snow on dry hair. My father drives through the opening, and I close the iron latch.
There has been a silence since the station. He greeted me, what way are you, how are they keeping, indeed you’ve grown, but apart from a comment on the scorching sun of the morning, my father has said nothing. There is nothing awkward about this. Neither one of us talks.
My father steps out of the car, and he has slung my bag over his shoulder. I follow him down the gravel path. With each step, my boots sink into a petal of another colour, pink, deep purple, a yellow begonia with its edges wilting into caramel. My father has done well. He pauses to pick up an unripe orange.
Somewhere, a lorikeet sings. I can already hear the stream trickling into the pond. The willows hum. This is the place I dashed through every afternoon, towards the kitchen counter and the little pot of tea that my mother had already brewed. This is the place where I would lie and breathe in the golden light, a novel perched on my bare middle, the strains of my father’s piano seeping through the open window. This is the place I left, the beauty I abandoned for a bedsit, my grey box by the grey Liffey in a grey, paralysed city. I feel, again, the metal frame of my single bed, the pebblecrete walls that grated a stray hand. I feel the cold stillness of the past year.
My father approaches the steps, and I follow suit. I do not ask why my mother is not on the veranda. I did not ask why she was not at the station, nor waiting in the passenger seat. He unlocks the door, and we pass through.
The hallway is dark, and my footsteps seem louder than they once were. My father nods his head to my boots. They are new boots, the soles thick and heavy. My boots are similar to those of my father, but his have been battered by time: the leather peels, dry and caked in mud. I place my boots by the doorframe.
He leads me into my home. The furniture has been rearranged. The deep blue chair is gone, and a padded, suede throne serves in its place. The new chair is fragmented into rectangular divisions, and plastic buttons decorate the arms. My father notices my gaze. We say nothing. The novels I have sent are in a pile on the coffee table, the spines unbroken. My father sits at his piano. The room is still. I want him to make a quip: to break the silence that began in peace and now festers between us. He begins to play a study that I do not know.
I walk into the chill of the kitchen. My mother has not brewed the tea, so I light a match against the stove, pressing the knob so that it clicks. I open the cupboards to find my blue mug in the back corner, and I wipe the dust off the lip. I slice a loaf of bread. The butter on the counter is warm. There is still a teaspoon in the jar of raspberry jam. I know these are relics from my father’s breakfast, but I do not know why my mother has not asked him to clean them up. I lean over the kitchen counter and eat, and just as I finish, the kettle wails. I pour the water, and brown wisps spiral through the mug.
At last, I come to my bedroom. I lie on the bed, and my weight presses into the mattress. I look at the gaps in the bookshelves. The empty coat hangers are askew in the open wardrobe, and the light spills through the window, where, just on the other side, my mother lies by the pond.
Her body is sprawled out on the grass. She lifts her hand above the water beside her, holds it above her reflection, and as she breaks the surface with her fingertips, her reflection does the same and breaks quietly.
I think of how she would take me to the pond as a boy, holding the belt of my trousers so I wouldn’t fall in. I think of how, later, we tasted the cool water. I think of how we would race each other across the pond, warm clouds of grey air at the surface. I think of how the tassels of our towels would lie in the shallows, how we would fall into them when our arms began to ache.
I have a memory of finding a lorikeet in the silt. Between the wisps of grass and pebbles and the tassels of our towels, I found a broken wing. The feathers lay as fragments, a mosaic of faded green and red and blue. I dug around the wing. I pulled the wet sand away, and I found the lorikeet and its faint heartbeat. I remember calling to my mother as she swam behind me. When I turned, she broke through the water, and came to kneel by the lorikeet. My mother wrapped the lorikeet in her palms, and laid it under the water for just a moment, rinsing off the blemishes of silt and lifting the lorikeet out of the pond, the green and red and blue feathers sleek against its little body. She placed the lorikeet on a flat rock to dry. She sunk back into the water, and I walked back up the path to change.
I would like to think that the lorikeet dried its feathers in the sun, fluttered its healed little wings, and soared to the willows. This is the story I told myself. The bird was saved, restored, by this pond of little healths. I do not know what happened after I left the pond that day.
I look out of the window and my mother’s skin is white as she still swims, lies, stands, rests by her pond. My mug of tea turns cold and bitter on the kitchen counter. I sink into my bed.
Whenever it does not rain, my family says that it is a soft day. When it pours, it is a hard day. My father is the one to decide what day it will be. This is what they did in Wexford, back when he was a boy. My attempts to do the same in Dublin were met with silence.
On soft days, the pond water is cool and clear, and my mother takes her bath there. She does not mind the cold. She asks whether a cup of tea could be ready for afterwards, so the shakes don’t set in. My mother sometimes returns from these baths with soft flecks of moss in her hair. My father and I say nothing.
When I wake, I know that I have been dreaming of the pond, and I do not want this to end. I want to swim into the cool, clear water and bathe, for the dream to go on. It is a soft day. I take my towel from the bottom drawer. A layer of dust has collected on the threadbare fabric, and as I climb out of the window and down to the pond, I brush the grey particles to the ground.
I leave my clothes on the grass. I can still hear the strains of my father’s piano, the same unknown study. I hope that his playing will continue while I bathe, that the stillness of the pond will not break. I know that he will not stop. I know that he no longer comes to the pond.
I step into the water, and I feel the grime of a year melt away. I wet my hair and lie back against the dark water and I am back in that Dublin bathtub, wisps of soap swimming around my knees. I dip my ears underwater as I try to remember the words of that day’s lectures, words uttered by the authors I love, Tóibín and Ní Dhuibhne and even Keegan herself, and although I have dreamed of this for so long, I sink into my chair and hear their words become mere sound. What can I do when the unthinkable has happened and I am still so far from home? I slide deeper into the bathtub. I can no longer hear the city streets. The music from my phone is muffled by the water and the hot steam. I hear the music stop as my phone starts to ring, and I know that it is my father, and I shut my eyes so the soap does not sting, and I sink to the bottom of the bathtub and lie as the water in my ear becomes the whirl of the pond’s little currents, and I am back in the dark water I know.
I lie against the water, floating among the nettles and brambles. I watch the green leaves cut up the sky. I feel my mother’s hand brush against mine. She floats beside me. She whispers, swim with me, a stór, swim with me, and she turns to swim her laps. I lie, completely still, against the water. It is a soft day. I watch the soft sun set before me.
When my arms begin to ache, I fall into my towel. I dry myself in the last remnants of daylight. I wrap the towel around my waist and tuck it in. I hold up my clothes in a bundle at my chest, and I walk up to the house.
My father is already in the kitchen, and I nod at him as I pass the window. I climb into my bedroom. When I go to the drawers to find a new t-shirt, a pair of cotton shorts, I find only the memorabilia of my childhood: a moth-eaten jumper, an embroidered bib. I do not know whether my father has moved my belongings, or whether I brought everything to Ireland, but at this moment, I feel that I am a visitor to my own childhood home. I empty my clothes out of my bag and onto the bed. I slip on a t-shirt, and hope that the creases will disappear.
As I leave my room, I touch the heating pipe that lines the corridor. The metal is cold. My father has not yet started the fire. I can hear drawers open and close in the kitchen, and I wonder whether he has any plan to start the fire at all. There is now a little button that you can press, just next to the bookshelves, to heat the pipes electronically. I noticed this button when I came into the house. I know that the warmth will not be the same.
I walk to the living room, and kneel by the fireplace. I pierce the bag of firewood with my fingertips, and I see that my father has bought the wood that is streaked by paint. My mother does not like this tainted firewood. The bitter smoke brings on her headaches, and once, she said that the smoke can even reach the pond: the water tastes of metal for a week afterwards. I lay the pieces in the fireplace. I light a match to a white firelighter, and the bases of the logs begin to glow. Soon, the room is warm. A layer of black residue covers the mantelpiece.
Behind the bitter smoke, I notice the smell of burning onions. I know that they are charred, that they are meant to be caramelised, but it is too late. I walk through the dark hallway to the kitchen.
I pour my cold tea into the sink. The leaves collect in the drain. I take out plates, cutlery, the tea towels we use as napkins, the candle jars we use as glasses. I set the table for two. My father presses the chicken breasts into the hot pan, and steam hisses from the pink meat. I stand alongside him as he cooks. I hand him an apron and he nods. I turn on the exhaust. I step away as he brings the pan to the table.
There are scraps of speech as we eat our supper. The chicken is delicious. He has roasted the tomatoes on the top shelf of the oven, and I know that they are from the garden — so is the parsley, the hint of garlic, the thyme. The onion is charred, but this seems to balance the sweetness of the tomatoes. My father has learned how to cook.
I note that there is already whiskey in his glass. He sees this and lifts the bottle, pouring a nip into mine. I take short, quick sips to hide the burn of the drink. I am, by now, used to the Irish liquid supper, but my father’s whiskey has always burned my throat. I remember grimacing when he first gave me a sip from his glass. I feel the shape of the glass in my hands. I feel the plastic cup that I kept in Dublin, cracked by months of use, and I taste the cold food that I ate for an entire cold year, the cross-legged meals at the foot of my bed. I look at the chicken, the gleaming tomatoes, and I breathe in the herbs.
My father and I talk about the food, the drink, but we do not talk of my mother. She sits beside us at the table. She lies under the table. She cackles. She stands on the kitchen counter, her white body dripping in pond water. She pours tea over herself. She sits on my lap, she is my father, she is a corpse on the table and she shimmers. She stands, she walks to the kitchen door, she opens it, she walks to her pond and sinks under her dark water, she swims through the herbs, she breathes in her little healths, and she rises up, sleek and sound, without blemish, spot, or hurt, and she stands. Look, she says.
I stand, taking the plates and pots to the sink. The water runs over them. I see myself on the train back to Sydney, my head against the window pane, my feet perched on the opposite seat and the eucalypts through the glass, and I see myself on the plane to Dublin, back to the grey, lifeless room by the Liffey, and I do not know where I want to be but I am here, I stand over the sink, and hot water runs over the china plates. When I turn around, I see that my father has left. The strains of his piano echo through the house. I stand over the kitchen counter, the water streaming before me, and I look out to the pond of little healths.