This is a little story of mine that was awarded third place in the Trudy Graham-Julie Lewis Literary Award for Prose, run by the Peter Cowan Writers Centre in WA.
It was inspired by a dramatic event I witnessed in Sydney’s Centennial Park. But the characters are entirely fictional.
THE LITTLE DEATH
by Cassie Hamer
Lisa’s calves burned. Her muscles quivered like a sad child’s bottom lip. Blood swamped her head and her heart pounded outraged beats into her ears.
‘Forty-five seconds to go. Really stretch it out,’ said Noah.
Was she the only one to understand that not everything designed for folding and bending?
There was a new book, sitting on her bedside table right now. The light from the alarm clock would be glowing off its glossy, hard cover. She could almost smell its new pages, crisp and woody. Instead, she was here, pretending to enjoy the art of human origami.
Lisa opened her eyes. The sky was all cloud, except for a slit on the horizon through which the sun shone like a knife blade.
‘Thirty seconds, now. Nearly there.’
Noah’s form was perfect. His body made a pleasing triangle with the ground. Head down, his bottom raised high in the air; a perfect peach waiting to be plucked.
‘Don’t look at me, babe. Focus on your breathing.’
How does he know I’m looking at him?
Lisa put her head down. After the downward dog was the cobra, and it was even more painful.
Loving a book involved no pain. No suffering. No pretending.
Not like loving a human.
‘I’m totally inflexible,’ she had joked on their first date. ‘I have no give.’
‘You’re funny,’ he’d said, reaching for her hand. ‘I really like you.’
‘I like you too.’
At that, they’d squirmed at each other while melting ice turned the dregs of their gin and tonics into puddles of bitey water.
‘I’ll teach you yoga,’ he insisted. ‘You’ll love it in no time.’
What she loved was his dark, curly hair. The way he put his hand in the small of her back when they walked down the street. How he smiled openly and often, and knew the most bizarre details about ‘90s boy bands.
She was falling.
It was the right verb, for Noah had changed her angle on the world. She was starting to see a future in which ‘I’ became ‘we’.
The smallest of personal-pronoun changes.
The largest of life changes.
The idea of speaking for another human being struck her as being somehow delightfully audacious. How very dare she presume to know what another person (a man, no less) would want, and think, and feel?
But they weren’t there quite yet. She still brought her own toothbrush for sleep-overs.
‘And twenty, nineteen, eighteen…’
Lisa eased further into the stretch and looked at the upside down world through her legs.
A forest of tiny mushrooms had sprung-up overnight in the dark, damp earth under their tree. Their cups were feathery and turned-up like mini blown-out umbrellas. So cute.
And no doubt horribly poisonous.
The Park had its seasons and rhythms. Three months of dawn yoga sessions, had taught her that. Already, the mounted police had come trotting past, exercising their horse like an equine work gang. Soon, it would be the bony marathon runner and his equally skinny whippet, then later, the foodie cyclists shouting companionably over their whirring wheels.
‘Sous vide makes the meat cook perfectly all the way through,’ one of them had yelled yesterday. So eastern suburbs.
‘.. Two, One, Zero. Okay. Now, the Cobra pose.’ Noah flipped onto his stomach, raised his face to the sun, closed his eyes and smiled beatifically, as if the rays were blessing him.
Lisa did the pose but started watching the swans. Two of them, in the pond. Necking. Repeatedly. Neck over neck, forcing their beaks below the pond’s surface.
It was beautiful and graceful, like the tying of an elaborate satin sash.
Of all she saw in the Park, it was the swans that most fascinated her. They were so beautiful in the water, so awkward on land. And the way they slept on one leg, with necks laid back into their feathers. From a distance, they were like misshapen lollipops.
But this necking. This was new.
What were they doing? Feeding, perhaps? Using the weight of the other to get deeper under water?
‘Hey hon, look at the swans.’
Noah sighed. ‘Babe, you’re supposed to clear your mind. Focus on your breathing, not the birds.’
‘But it’s really bizarre.’
But Lisa kept her eyes on the swans. The balletic dance was becoming more capoeira. More forceful. Necks diving deeper. Under water for longer. They were getting close to something. But what?
‘Thirty more seconds, Lise.’
The necking was frenzied now. A sword fight.
Suddenly, the smaller one, its neck black and shiny as a snake, disappeared into the pond’s glassy depths.
Above the surface, its mate squawked and flapped. Squawked and flapped.
Lisa scrambled to her feet. ‘Oh god. I think it’s drowning.’
‘Babe, what’s going on?’ Noah joined her.
Lisa pointed at the swans. ‘Its neck must be stuck in reeds. Oh god, what can we do?’
‘Oh, shit. It is stuck.’
‘I know, I know. Do something! Get a stick or something?’
‘What’s a stick going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’ Lisa rubbed her chin. The swan honked like an angry oboe. ‘You’ll have to dive in.’ She turned to Noah.
‘What? In there?’ Are you kidding?’
‘No. It’s going to die!’ She banged her palms against his chest. ‘Do something!’
‘No. You need to calm the fuck down.’
Lisa paced towards the water’s edge. She looked back at Noah, as beautiful and useless as a statue of David.
‘Please! Help them.’
Noah folded his arms.
She felt water soak in through the toe of her sneakers. Water rippled out from the thrashing swans. Still squawking. Still flapping. More seconds. Death imminent.
Suddenly, the mate grabbed the drowning swan’s neck in its beak.
The swan pulled, pulled, pulled, and when survival seemed impossible, its drowning mate broke through the surface like a free-diver coming up for air.
Cue the relieved, hefts of honking. Shaking out of feathers. And then gentle caressing between the swan pair.
Lisa folded her arms and felt her heart, beating through her ribs.
Noah was beside her. ‘That was full-on.’
She didn’t answer.
On the way home, his hand on her neck felt like a fish hook.
Her gills flapped.
The office was quiet. The rest of Lisa’s team had bounced out, lycra-clad, for the lunch time corporate touch football comp.
‘Not coming, Lise?’
‘No, bit more proofing to do.’ As evidence, she’d held up a document, pitted with slashes of red-pen.
Soon, they’d be back, crowing about the hopelessness of the accounts team from Bakers. But for the next half-hour, it would be Lisa, the idling photocopiers and silent telephones.
She typed the words –black swans, necking, drowning – and munched on her tuna sushi roll. As she read through the results, she felt a flush, beginning in her toes and rising to her head.
Whenever they made love, it felt to Lisa like the whole world fell away, and it was just her and Noah and their longing for each other’s bodies.
But that night, for the first time since they’d met, she faked her orgasm. He was in her brain, on her body, everywhere with those perfect, useless muscles. So, she made noises like she was stepping into a hot bath – ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh, ah, ah, ahhhhh’ – and he seemed to buy it.
When it was over, she lay her head on his chest, and played with the curls of hair on his chest.
‘I was wrong, you know, about the swans.’
‘What do you mean, Lise?’ Noah was slurry with sleep.
‘The swan. This morning. It wasn’t drowning.’
‘Yeah?’ He sounded more awake now.
‘They were mating.’
‘Right,’ Noah laughed and patted her forearm. ‘You know what the French call an orgasm?’
‘Le Petite Mort.’
‘The little death?’
She practised the phrase in her head. The way he slightly rolled his ‘r’ – it was sexy.
‘You speak French?’
When he said ‘peu’, it sound just like ‘poo’. Still. French. The language of love. Another thing she did not know about him.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t help you, though,’ said Noah.
He sighed and squirmed, shifting Lisa’s head.
‘What’s wrong?’ She rolled off his chest.
‘Please tell me.’
‘It’s stupid.’ He rubbed his eyes.
‘I like stupid.’
He was silent, and then sighed. ‘I’m scared of birds.’
She giggled. Another crumb. Another morsel that she could squirrel away with which to re-build her nest.
‘That’s it? You’re scared of birds?’
‘Don’t laugh! It’s serious. I’m totally petrified.’
Lisa straightened her face. ‘Why?’
‘I got attacked by a magpie when I was a kid. Nearly took my eye out.’
Lisa lay her head back down. ‘No wonder you’re scared.’
‘After that, my mum made me wear an ice-cream bucket on my head.’
She stifled another giggle. ‘Seriously?’
Noah rolled away from her. ‘Seriously. Kids started calling me “Peters”’
‘After the ice-cream brand?’
‘Yep. Made my life misery’
‘You poor thing,’ she murmured, stroking his arm.
After a while, his breathing became regular. Noah was asleep.
Lisa closed her eyes.
A vision of him flashed into her head. But it wasn’t Noah, standing useless by the pond, it was a scared little boy with a too-large ice-cream bucket on his head.
Tomorrow, she would tell him how much she hated yoga.