Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Cloud Creature by Kate Zahnleiter

The Cloud Creature by Kate Zahnleiter: 2010 Second-Place Winner

I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, and so I slip out the front door while he's in the shower. I should leave a note to save him from worry and rage, but I doubt I'll be gone long and either way I cannot bring myself to go back into the house. Henry has made an appointment for Thursday, 11.30. He has printed off an information sheet, complete with carpark diagram, and left a pre-procedure checklist on top of the kitchen bench. I learn something new each time I pass. No food or drink for two hours prior to the scheduled time. Patients will be given medication for the pain. Should infection occur, a course of antibiotics will be prescribed and all discomfort should be cleared within a few days. Bold type at the bottom of the page tells me I will not be permitted to leave the clinic unless accompanied by a family member or friend, but Henry hasn't offered to come with me. He hasn't offered anything other than the money, but then I don't really have any of my own.

I push my way up the hill, enjoying the way my muscles tighten and release, trying to trust the soundness of them and believe that they will not give way and leave me the victim of gravity and the ground below. Lately, I have been thinking often of my body. As a constant. As something other than a vessel which carries me from place to place, a vessel from which I can disembark at any moment. I suppose I have you to thank for that. You've been focusing on your own body, I know. First with the rapid division of cells and now, millimetre by millimetre, every day you are growing yourself. I push my way up the hill and try to ignore the sharp pain in my side which could be your handiwork or could be Henry's, or could simply be a symptom of my general lack of fitness. Exercise is good for foetal development, I know, though I suppose that won't make much difference.

'Get rid of it,' Henry had said, and he had pushed his fingers into my stomach so hard I thought you'd be able to feel them, so hard I thought he was trying to rip you out of there himself. Get rid of it, he'd said, as if he was referring to a stain on a bed sheet or some sort of blood-sucking parasite. He'd spoken that way about a couple of church group leaders, once. They had climbed our front steps and asked if I wanted to be saved, and I did, oh God I did, but he slammed the door in their faces and slid the lock into place.

Get rid of it, he'd said of you, even though I hadn't breathed a word. I hadn't even thought about you while in his presence, just in case he had broken through the final barrier and had learnt to read my mind. I had been careful not to let my hand rest on my stomach more than usual. I had been careful not to let my eyes glaze over when he spoke, since Henry liked to clear my head by cracking it against the nearest hard surface. Instead, I kept you buried until the private daylight hours, until I heard the front door click shut and felt the house clear of him. Then I would sit at our kitchen table in silence and let my mind grow fat with thoughts of you, while I stared at the clock and tracked its movements. I'd heard that time slows down that way, and I wanted to savour each solitary tick. Thursday, 11.30. That's a little over 24 hours, and I wonder if my legs could hold out for that long and keep my head clear. I doubt it, since already I need a rest.

The door to the coffee shop chimes happily as I enter, the bell's enthusiasm not matched by that of the waitress, who sighs when she sees me. I pick a corner booth next to the window, and slide across the seat so I am huddled against the wall. The air conditioning has been turned up too high, and my flesh rises in tiny bumps as it often does when I need an extra layer of insulation, when I need to seem intimidating and larger to my enemy. I rub my body to warm it, careful of all the tender places. There are four fading purple circles on my forearm and I try to line my fingers up with them, the same way I have seen people try to fit their palms into other people's handprints hardened into concrete. Mine aren't a match, though that's no surprise; if my body could be dusted and lighted forensically, every inch would glow with Henry's arches, loops and whorls. I have read that by the seventh week of gestation a foetus has already developed an individual set of fingerprints. You are already unique.

'Can I help you?'

Oh please, yes, could you?

'I'll have a camomile tea, thanks.'

Research shows that light to moderate caffeine consumption is safe during pregnancy, but I'm unclear on the widely accepted definition of 'moderate' and know a lot of the data comes from studies involving pregnant rats. The process differs from creature to creature. From rat to human, from human to human, the process is different for everyone. I think that animal testing is cruel, on a whole, but an argument could be made that there are some things people need to know. For the greater good.

Growing up, I knew two things about my mother. The first was that she had long black hair, like mine. The second was that I had killed her. There was no information at all about my father, and my Child Safety Officer told me not to think on any of these things too much. Unfortunately, there was little else I wanted to think on, between the endless rotation of foster families and government homes and faces, large and twisted, familiar and unfamiliar at once. When I was eight I asked Mrs McTeague, the school librarian at the time, if she knew how to find out more. She had always been so supportive with class projects.

'I can't help you, Cal,' she had said, ducking her head so I couldn't see her eyes. She gave me a book on African wildlife instead and let me sit in her office while I read it. She knew I hated the communal reading room, with the low murmuring of other children and the erratic flipping of pages. She knew even such small sounds bothered me when I was trying to concentrate. She knew how I needed my solitude.

Sometimes I wonder what it's like in there for you, in your own little world. No day or night. No hot or cold. No food or water or air, other than that which I pass on. The ultrasound gave nothing away but a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. I hope it doesn't overwhelm and confuse you, in there. I hope you don't get lonely. Sometimes I try to remember what it was like for me, when I was in your position, but it does no good. The human brain and memory can only stretch so far; some things need to be pushed out to make room for others.

Towards the end of my schooling I stayed with a family called the Clarksons. They had three children of their own and the eldest, Miranda, taught me to revise for exams by standing in front of a mirror and saying facts aloud until they stuck in my head. I liked the Clarksons, and I would have liked to have stayed with them for longer than the six months, had Mrs Clarkson not developed multiple sclerosis.

During this time, I met my grandmother. She was much younger than I imagined grandmothers to be, with a raspy voice and a smell of stale scotch and talc. We caught the train to Pelican Bay so she could show me where my mother had grown up. We climbed to the top of Break-Neck Cliff and sat with our legs dangling over the edge. I sucked in sea air and she sucked in nicotine while she spoke, carefully, about my mother.

'She liked to swim to clear her head. She loved the sea. She named you for it.'

I trembled with the effort of restraining myself and tried not to rush her for more. I could already see myself saying these facts aloud to the mirror. I could already see myself moving to Pelican Bay and settling down with my grandmother, with the memory of my mother. I could already see my life changing.

'She never went anywhere else. This was where we laid her to rest. She's still down there, you know. She's still swimming.'

I trembled again, but this time mostly in fear. I imagined my mother as some sort of interminable sea monster; her tired body wrapped in seaweed, her long black hair threaded with salt. I imagined her climbing out of the whitewash and up the side of the cliff towards us, her aching arms outstretched to claim me, to pull me down with her.

'If things had been different...' my grandmother said, but she let the rest of her words fall over the edge of the cliff, so I wasn’t sure what would happen if things had been different.

I sat by the phone for three weeks before I realised she wasn't going to call. I knew I should have spoken more, tried to appear more interesting. I shouldn't have complained when I stumbled and cut my leg as I tried to keep up with her, her footing as steady and sure as a mountain goat's. I shouldn't have told her I didn't know how to swim. I thought about catching the train to Pelican Bay by myself to surprise her, but instead Miranda and I rode into town and I looked up my name in the encyclopaedia. Calypso was a sea goddess. Her mother covered the world while her father was a giant who held the whole thing up. She kept a man prisoner for seven years. She wouldn't let him free.

My tea arrives; tiny flowers floating in hot water.

'Don't burn yourself,' the waitress says, but she doesn't sound as if she cares one way or the other. She looks worn out, and I wonder if she spends her whole day praying not to hear that door chime.

I stare into the pot and try to see shapes in the bobbing yellow clumps. When I was 18, I met a young man with green eyes and a slow, deliberate smile. He could find pictures in the clouds; a swan, a boat, two lovers in the grass. He could put words to the pictures as well, plucking stories from the heavens with such skill that by the end of the day those stories were more real than we were. He told me he saw me playing the piano. He told me he saw me learning to paint. He told me these things while he held my hand gently, stroking the back of it with his thumb. I try to read my tea, now, but it is only the past I see.

'I want to marry you, Cal,' he said to me once, and my heart had beaten right out of my chest and landed in the sky, where it became white and fluffy and read as a single, simple Yes.

Three weeks later, he rolled his car while telling me the story of a cloud creature that grew so large it became everything. I was trapped inside with his lifeless body for two hours, but he didn't suffer. Not as I did. They cut me out and told me I was lucky. They told me I would lose my limp, over time. I still had it when I met Henry, though that didn’t seem to bother him. I still have a scar down the left side of my face, too, which I don't want to lose. That seems to bother him a little.

I told Henry I wanted to study, and to work with victims of trauma and sufferers of chronic pain. I told him I wanted to teach them to play the piano. I told him I wanted to teach them to paint. He nodded, he encouraged me, until one day he changed his mind and broke each of my fingers. But he was sorry for it.

'I just want you here with me, Cal. I just want to take care of you.’

I had considered telling him I could take care of myself, but the truth was I wasn't so sure of it.

'I just love you so much. See?'

His eyes had been full and wet, his intact fingers vice-like on my waist, and I thought that I could see. If I looked at it a certain way. If I tilted my head and squinted.

I didn't want to see you, at first. The nurse offered to hold my hand but I gripped the sheets instead until my knuckles turned white, begging for a misunderstanding, hoping that you had disappeared through my silence and neglect. I didn't want you. You wouldn't want me, with my sallow skin and lank hair, with my swollen gums and concave chest. When I break and bruise I am slow to heal. These are all signs of malnourishment.

The doctor had pointed to a beautiful, floating blur, and I had tried to make a picture out of you. I had tried to build you a story, but I had no talent for it. Practice makes perfect, though, and the doctor had printed out a copy for me to carry home in my back pocket. In my head, I carried home memorised paragraphs from the waiting room brochures. Pregnancy should be a special time. There are many factors to consider when making a decision. A woman has a right to control her body. A woman has a right to choose. Say those lines in front of a mirror and repeat them until they stick. I would say them now, in front of the reflective coffee shop window, but the glass is dusty and streaked with grease, and my likeness is mottled and unformed. I don't think she'd understand. She rarely does.

'Do you know what you've done?' Henry had said. 'Do you know what will happen?'

I knew I had created life out of chaos. I can’t know the future, but I'd done some research. I'd read about crack babies that come out screaming for their next fix. I'd read about foetuses choking themselves before they are even fully grown. I'd read about young eating each other inside the womb. Intra-uterine cannibalism, they call it. Though that article had been about grey nurse sharks.

'Is the thing even mine?'

His voice had been harsh, and I had closed my eyes against it in case he could see how strongly I prayed. For an immaculate conception. For a severe case of sleepwalking. For a gestation period that would break the records. At altitudes of 1,400 to 1,700 metres, the pregnancy of an Alpine Salamander can last for up to three years, though the process differs from creature to creature. I am still not entirely sure what sort of creature I am. Part human, part titan, part sea. I'm still not sure what sort you are, either.

If things had been different. If I could build you a story.

It takes two hours to get to Pelican Bay by train. It takes 20 minutes to walk to the train station from the coffee shop. I could go there now. I could buy a ticket and board the train, take a seat next to a nice elderly woman and her knitting or else across from a couple of teenagers with their headphone speakers turned up too loud. I could find a house with a room to rent. I could find a job. In high school I could type 52 words per minute, and I wouldn't mind scrubbing toilets. I could let my belly grow fat with love of you. I could already see my life changing.

My bag sits open on the seat beside me and I try not to tremble as I rifle through it, try to keep my breathing even so you don't have to fend for yourself. In its depths I find travel tissues, a pen, a packet of gum with three pieces missing. I find my phone with the crack down the middle; a crack along its face which tells me I have five missed calls, though I don't know how I could have missed the shrill, shrieking sound of them. I continue to rake my hands through the debris at the bottom of the bag, even though I know, in my stomach, that I have left my wallet at home. I can see it on the kitchen bench, right next to that appointment slip. I can't even pay for the tea.

I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, but now I don't trust my shaking legs to hold me up. Instead, I fold my arms into a pillow on the tabletop and let them take the weight of it, though I do my best avoid the tender places. I press my ear into the cavern created between the old wood and my body. It echoes, there; a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. It confuses and overwhelms me. It sounds like the sea.

Kate Zahnleiter was born and raised in South East Queensland, Australia. In 2005 she graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours), and has since been involved in community care and rehabilitation, working with individuals with mental illness and victims of violence and abuse. Her current goal is to make writing a larger part of her life, and to travel the world as widely as she can for inspiration.