Chapter 1: Reason Cansino
Once, when I was really little, we passed a road sign peppered with bullet holes. It was pretty much the same as any of the other road signs we passed out bush, but this one I read out loud in my squeaky toddler voice: “Darwin 350. Two times 175. Five times seventy. Seven times fifty. Ten times thirty-five.”
My mother, Sarafina, clapped. “Unbelievable!”
“How old is the kid?” asked the truck driver who was giving us a lift to the Jilkminggan road. He glanced down at me suspiciously.
“Almost three.” Sarafina was seventeen.
When we arrived three of the old women, Lily, Mavis and Daisy, sat down with us on the dirt floor of the meeting place. They gave us tucker—yams, wild plums and chocolate bickies to eat, and black-brewed, sticky-sweet tea to drink. A posse of kids hung around, darting in and out for plums and bickies, but mostly stood just out of reach, watching and giggling.
A few gum trees dotted the settlement, their leaves a dull green, but mostly there was dirt, dry scrub and ant hills taller than a man. Healthier, greener trees, bushes and vines grew further away, on the other side of the buildings, where the ground sloped into the banks of the Roper River. The buildings were low, made of untreated wood and rusting corrugated iron. The only one with four walls, a proper door and windows was the silver demountable where school was held. The hottest, most uncomfortable building in the settlement.
“You’re that travelling woman, eh?” Daisy asked. “With all them different names?”
“What you want to be called now?”
“Sally. And my daughter’s Rain,” Sarafina said, even though my name is Reason.
“We hear about you,” Daisy said. “You been all over, eh? All way down south too?”
“Yes,” Sarafina said, “we’ve been all over Australia.”
“Seen lots of white man places too?”
“Some.” Sarafina always stayed away from cities so that her mother wouldn’t find us. “I like Aboriginal places better.”
The three women grunted as if this was to be expected.
“That little one, that Rain,” Daisy said, looking at me. “She’s countryman, eh?”
“Her father countryman, innit?”
“Where him from?” Mavis asked. She was the oldest of the three women. Her hair was all white and her skin was so black it shone. She took a piece of chewing tobacco from behind her ear and put it in her mouth.
“I don’t know.”
The three women murmured at this. “Don’t know?”
Sarafina shook her head.
“Who his people?”
“Them from desert country? Arnhem country?”
Sarafina shrugged. “He didn’t tell me.”
Daisy nudged Lily. “That little one Rain? Him amari? Him munanga, I reckon.”
“True,” Lily said, “but him daddy still got country.” She turned back to Sarafina. “Where you meet him?”
“Out west.” Sarafina gestured past the water tank resting on a huge mound of dirt, to the horizon where the sun would set.
“How long you him together?”
They nodded at this. “Drunken fella?”
Sarafina laughed. “No.”
“Him from bush or white man place?”
“Ah,” Lily said, pleased to be given something solid. “Stockman?”
“I don’t know.”
“Him barefoot or got boots?”
They nodded again. “Stockman.”
Sarafina made flashcards. She cut up an old cardboard box that had once held cartons of Winnies. She wrote on them with a fat black Texta she’d bought in Mataranka with some of the money she’d earned from helping the publican with his taxes.
She wrote the names of nine recent places we’d either stayed or seen road signs for: Darwin, Jilkminggan, Katherine, Mataranka, Ngukurr, Numbulwar, Borroloola, Limmen Bight and Umbakumba; the names of all the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (though she said the last one wasn’t really a planet); and the branches of mathematics: foundations, algebra, analysis, geometry, and applied.
We sat on the dirt floor under a roof of paperbark. Occasionally strands of it would drift down and land on us. The three women sat cross-legged, gutting a kangaroo and waving the flies away.
“Sally,” Daisy asked, “what are you doing with your girl Rain?”
“Teaching her how to read.”
They all nodded, and agreed reading was important, though of the three of them only Daisy really knew how.
Sarafina held up the cards with one hand, waving flies away and patting one of the dogs with the other. They were good dogs and knew enough not to try stealing any of the women’s meat. At least not while the women were looking. Besides, they were allowed to snatch up the discarded guts.
“Ve-nus,” I read. “Dar-win. Al-ge-bra.”
Sarafina held up the next card. “Nnn . . . ” I said, trailing off, staring at the card with its n and g and k and r’s and u’s. I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it before. I didn’t understand how those letters went together to make sounds.
Flies tried to get into my mouth and eyes. The sky was the intense blue that only happens when the earth is the red-brown of iron. Not one cloud. Dry season. There would be no rain for months.
“Ngukurr,” said Lily, sliding past the g that had so confused me. Her people were from there. She knew how to read that one.
Sarafina put the cards down, realising she should, perhaps, have started with the alphabet. For the next two hours we sang A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P-Q-R-S-T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z. The old women laughed and lots of the kids joined us, some of them sneaking out of school in the demountable with the drunken white teacher. I informed Sarafina that F, J, Q and Z were my favourites.
Annie, Valerie, Peter, little Rabbit and Dave said they liked S best, so Sarafina invented an S dance for them. This involved standing up, putting your hands above your head, pushing your hips to one side and your shoulders to the other and shimmering like a snake.
We all S-danced, falling down and snake-bellying away across the ground, coating ourselves with red dirt. Everyone was good at it except me. I was too little and unco. Sarafina was the best, even though she was the only whitefella, faster and more shimmery than anyone else. We all laughed.
The dogs barked and jumped up, running in circles, trying to join in, but they weren’t good at moving on their bellies and kept rolling over, trying to get us to rub them instead. They didn’t look like snakes at all.
When we were all danced out and tired and the women had the kangaroo roasting amongst the coals, Mavis told us the story of the mermaid ancestor and how she’d made the land. She had many names, but Mavis said munga-munga was best.
I dreamed about her that night and many nights, but in my dreams when she made her giant path across the country, sparkling numbers and letters spilled out from her tail, littering the red earth, turning into valleys and rivers and hills and ocean, drifting up into the sky and becoming the planets and the stars.
The munga-munga has always been my favourite.
Once, when I was ten years old and Sarafina twenty-five, I lost my temper. Sarafina had always told me never to lose my temper, but she never told me why.
I’d only been at the school for a week. It was my first and last time in a real school. One where you had to wear shoes and be quiet when the teacher spoke and not leave the classroom unless the teacher said you could, but also one where there were lots of kids and games and books about things I’d never heard of. I was really hoping I’d be able to stay.
I was being called Katerina Thomas and my hair was cut short and dyed light brown, almost blonde. I still looked like me, though.
Josh Davidson was the class creep. He’d go around snapping girls’ bra straps (those that had them), calling them bitches, and, when he could, cornering them and trying to touch their breasts (even if they didn’t have any yet). He was taller than the other girls and boys, stronger too.
He was a lot taller than me. He’d already tried to snap my non-existent bra, and I had a bruise on my arm from where he’d grabbed me when I was coming out of the bathroom. A teacher had turned the corner and told him to let me go before he could do anything else.
The next day in class, Josh sat next to me. He pushed his chair as close as he could. I felt fear and anger inside me like an intense heat. He didn’t try to touch my breasts, instead he put his hand on my thigh. I held my knees tight together. Put my hand in my pocket to hold my ammonite stone.
“Spread your legs, boong,” Josh whispered in my ear.
I felt my anger getting bigger, uncoiling inside me. There was a scream, but I didn’t open my mouth. The stone in my pocket grew warm and sweaty as I clutched it tightly. The rage was like a wave, starting small then spiralling out of me. Growing bigger and bigger as fast and beautiful as Fibonacci numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 , 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597 . . . My eyes exploded in blinding red light.
Someone yelled out, something about a doctor.
Then for a moment I could see. The intense light in front of me faded away. Josh was on the floor. He wasn’t moving. I felt glorious, better than I had ever felt in my entire life.
Then I fainted.
It was hours before I discovered that Josh Davidson was dead. An aneurism, they thought. I had to ask what that was. The blood in his head had lumped together, had stopped the oxygen getting to his brain.
Had I made his blood do that?
I didn’t ask Sarafina, but that night we left. Not just the town, but the state, we went all the way across the country as far as we could get. No more school for me.
We never talked about it, but after that Sarafina’s warnings about not losing my temper came even more often. Without explanation.
I know now. I stopped that boy’s blood. I killed him.
I’m magic like my mother, but she never told me. She didn’t tell me that if I lose my temper people could die. She never told me that if I don’t use my magic, I’ll go mad like her. Or that if I do use it I’ll most likely die before I turn twenty. She never told me to choose between magic or madness.
Sarafina didn’t tell me anything.
Chapter 2: Back to the Asylum
Sarafina didn’t look any different. She sat on one of the biggest of the ugly brown couches, still and silent, more statue than human, wearing the same white terry-towelling robe she had on last time I saw her. Less than a week ago, I realised.
I wondered when time would come right again. Ever since Sarafina had tried to kill herself it had been running either too fast or too slow. Right now it was 11 AM, but my body was convinced it was night time.
Jetlag, Tom had called it, then he’d laughed and said, “Doorlag, really. You get used to it. Jay-Tee and me are already on Sydney time on account of we didn’t sleep away two whole days like you did.”
They hadn’t seemed so over it when I’d slipped out of the house less than an hour ago. Jay-Tee had been sound asleep and Tom nowhere in sight even though he’d promised to come around first thing, and we’d all gone to bed super early because we could barely keep our eyes open. I doubted I was the only one still doorlagged.
The visiting room at Kalder Park was much more crowded than it had been a week ago, and hotter. The two ceiling fans didn’t turn quite true and made more noise than cool air. Visitors and patients were dotted about the room, twenty-five of the first, nineteen of the latter, easy to tell apart.
Sarafina was sitting next to a much older woman with grey hair and strange jerky movements who was trying to explain to her daughter (at least I imagined she was the woman’s daughter) why Thursdays, not Mondays, were the best days for visits. It had something to do with the way T’s and H’s sounded together. Her voice was loud, carrying around the room, her cheeks red and damp. She looked exactly how I’d always imagined crazy people would.
Sarafina didn’t look up or smile when I squeezed in beside her on the couch; her expression stayed blank and distant. I’d half expected her to tell me that I’d changed. She said nothing. She looked so much like Esmeralda. But I could see no resemblance between her and Jason Blake. It was hard to believe he was her father, my grandfather. Why hadn’t she told me about him?
I reached into the hip pocket of my new pants, specially made for me by Tom, feeling for my ammonite, remembering just as my fingers touched nothing that I’d left it behind on the other side of the door, in New York City. I hoped Danny had picked it up.
Jay-Tee had called her brother yesterday and chatted away with Danny for what seemed like hours, but I hadn’t gotten to talk to him. It hadn’t occurred to Jay-Tee that I’d want to. And Danny hadn’t asked for me. I could call him later when Sydney time and New York time lined up properly, but I was too embarrassed.
Still, it was only Monday. I’d last seen Danny on Thursday. No, not Thursday. That had been in New York City; it’d been Wednesday here in Sydney. So it was five days since I’d last seen or spoken to Danny. And I’d been asleep for almost two of those days, recovering from battling Jason Blake with magic. Maybe Danny had asked after me and Jay-Tee had forgotten to pass it on.
Did magic affect time? I’d first arrived in Sydney on Sunday afternoon and here it was Monday morning, just eight days later, and yet so much had happened—I’d learned that magic was real, stepped through a door to another country, discovered other people with magic, made friends, met Danny, discovered what it is to be truly, truly cold. Far too much had happened in such a short amount of time. Just eight days!
My world wasn’t spinning on the same axis anymore. The rules of physics had been broken. Magic was real.
The grey-haired woman’s daughter leaned forward to nod at me briefly before turning her attention back to her loud, unstill mother.
I stared at Sarafina’s profile, counting the freckles—thirty-eight of them—on the side of her nose. I followed the line of her gaze: out the window, down to the bay where fifteen white-sailed boats floated on its sparkling water. Did she see any of it? Her eyes were glazed over, vacant.
Two weeks ago Sarafina’s eyes had been alive, full of plans. We had been on the road together, had just decided to go to Nevertire because the name made us giggle. She hadn’t been sad, hadn’t gotten all obsessive, insisting she count every star, or washing her hands fifty-five times in a row. None of the usual signs that she was about to lose it. But then she’d never lost herself so completely before. She’d never tried to kill herself before.
It shocked me all over again how unlike Sarafina she seemed. She’d had never been a still person. Sarafina was always in motion, her face showing exactly what she was thinking. I looked at her now and saw no thought at all. It was as if she had stopped thinking, had run down and become still. All motion gone. Sarafina gone.
I tried to think of what to say. If I said, “I know about magic,” would that jerk her back to life? Not that I could say it with those two women so close by. They’d think I was one of the patients. Besides, it was hardly the best way to break the news. What if Sarafina lost it again?
A trickle of sweat ran down my back. “Hot, isn’t it?” I said, just to be saying something. “At least there’s some breeze off the bay.”
“They never open the windows,” the jerky woman said, turning to look at me. Her voice was so loud I flinched. I was glad Sarafina sat between us; white bubbly spittle formed at the corners of the strange woman’s mouth and specks flew as she spoke. “The breeze isn’t allowed in. They want us to boil.”
Every window was open wide.
She tried to lean closer to me. “Did they do that to your eye?” I put my hand to my still bruised face and shook my head. “Did they put their needles right into your eyeball?”
“Mum, hush. Leave the girl alone.” The daughter leaned forward, pulling her mother towards her, and grimaced at me—though I was sure it was meant to be a smile. She looked very tired. “Sorry, love.”
Sarafina wasn’t hot. In that way she was the Sarafina I had always known. My mother found heat easy, had always been the one who was cold when everyone else was warm.
I blurred my vision until I could see inside Sarafina, down to where nothing was still, to the pumping of her heart, the blood rushing through her veins, the acid roiling in her stomach, the movement of her intestines. I could see her cells, every single one of them. Hear the rollercoaster movements in every part of her, like the ocean in a storm.
Governing it all was Sarafina’s pattern with its graphic confirmation that, yes, Jason Blake was my grandfather. I could see both grandparents, Esmeralda and Jason Blake, in her, traces of their DNA. Like them, her pattern was woven through with magic. There in every part of her—her cells, the molecules that made up every cell. The magic smelled earthy, like rich black soil, but unlike my grandparents, unlike Jay-Tee, there was no taste of rust. In its place under my tongue was a sharp sourness, like an unripe lemon. The smell made my eyes water.
Sarafina finally blinked. The movement pulled my senses back to the surface, where she was still and quiet.
The crazy woman’s daughter hugged her mother, stood up, and said goodbye. Her mother started to cry.
“I’ll be back, I promise.” She glanced at me, embarrassed, and then away again, avoiding her mother’s eyes. “I have to go. I’ll bring your granddaughter next time. I promise.” She left quickly without glancing back. Her mother started to rock back and forth, her cries gradually getting louder.
A nurse came to quiet her, and led her from the room. He was tall and smiled a lot. He called the woman Betty and talked to her as though she were five years old. Her moans made no impression on him. He must have been used to it.
When they were gone I moved to the other side of Sarafina, screwed up my courage to speak to her. There was so much I wanted to ask. What were the feathers Esmeralda had put under my pillow? What were they supposed to do? How did magic work? How long did I have to live? I wanted to tell her about the letters Esmeralda had slipped under my door. The letters I hadn’t opened, that Esmeralda had stolen back before I could read them. I opened my mouth to say, I’ve been to New York City.
But Sarafina spoke first, “You’re hers now, aren’t you?” She wasn’t looking at me—her tone was flat and even, but her eyes had somehow cleared.
“No, no, I’m not.” I wasn’t sure though. I was staying under Esmeralda’s roof. I had helped her win the stoush against Jason Blake. She was going to teach me about magic. She had put those black and purple feathers under my pillow. Did all that make me hers?
“Then why are you wearing those pants?”
I looked down at the green pants Tom had made for me, his magic sewn into every seam. I flushed.
“You’re going to die,” Sarafina said. “Soon.”
“Then tell me what you know,” I said, trying to sound brave though I felt ill. “Tell me what I can do. I don’t trust Esmeralda. But at least she’ll tell me how magic works. If I’m going to fix this I need you to help me.”
“There’s no fix. You die or you end up here. This is better.”
I didn’t believe that for a second. There had to be a way, a path that didn’t lead to madness or early death. I was going to find it. I opened my mouth to tell her. Instead the question, “Why did you lie to me?” bubbled out.
Sarafina closed her eyes, then opened them. Turned to look at me, really look at me, for the first time since she’d tried to kill herself and gone mad. “I never lied.”
“But magic is real. I’ve seen—”
“I was trying to make it unreal, by denying it. I wasn’t lying.”
“But what about all those things you told me? You said there was no electricity in her house. There is. That she sacrificed babies—”
“I never lied.”
“What are the black and purples feathers for? What do they do? How much danger am I in?”
But Sarafina was gone, her eyes filmed over again with the drugs they gave her. The unripe lemon taste filled my mouth, something sharp and jolting filled my nostrils. I gagged, my eyes watering. I realised what it was: I could taste and smell my mother’s madness.
(If any of the words above are unfamiliar you can look ’em up in the glossary.)