and the winner is...
THE HIDDEN LIGHT
The road to Cape du Couedic lighthouse is a scar that winds like a scoliosis across the spine of Kangaroo Island. The handles on the rental rattle, as the car veers and slides. It’s just a dirt track tenuously held together with stones and potholes. I cling to the seat and reassure myself we will make it there alive. My husband grins at me. “You have to get some speed up, going slower only makes it worse.” We pass crouching trees, doubled over by the unrelenting wind arriving from the Southern Ocean. “I’m not ready to die yet.” I close my eyes. “That’s what the Indigenous call it here, ‘Karta’ — island of the dead.” My husband laughs, vibrations from the corrugated road tugging on his vocal chords. The prodigal son is returning to his childhood home, tanned elbow hanging out of the window. Locals slow down as they pass, picking up conversations they left with him years ago. Everyone asserts they knew he would be back. Out here, nothing reassures people more about their own lives than when someone fails to forge a new one for themselves elsewhere. I feel like the footnote to his story, the art teacher wife, the Melbourne girl with her unsuitable shoes, the outsider. The farm is the nearest building to the lighthouse, butter-coloured stone, stark against the sky. It’s taken four months since his dad died to convince me to do this. “You’ll love the island, there are more artists here than tourists. We can open a little café with a gallery.” I don’t see the lantern when we arrive, although it’s hidden in plain sight. The daylight drowns it out. In the evening, the steady flflash from the lamp keeps me awake. At midnight I am fifixing sheets to bare, draughty windows to shut it out. It divides my nights up into blinks of an eye. Those fifirst weeks I struggle. I miss my family, decent coffffee, city noise. On sleepless nights, he drives us inland to Flinders Chase and we lie under mallee trees, staring upwards. The Milky Way is just an inky pot to wash my
brushes in and each star a glimmering hope for the babies we have yet to imagine into being. He teaches me about island bees, pure stock brought from Italy. He explains how they see in ultraviolet light and communicate with dance. The great social machinery at work under a single queen, whose purpose is to procreate. We adopt a dog, our surrogate child, who chases tennis balls while I sit by the lighthouse. Down below, my husband surfs the towering waves, carving patterns in the dark foam as seals bay at him from the rocks. Our kitchen window looks out over the scrubby meadow, dotted with wild flflowers. It is a shanty town of inherited hives. They jar on my artistic sensibilities, a mismatch of styles, colours and materials. Within a year, there are twice as many. I design product labels, work the centrifuge and fifill jars until I dream of honey. I am afraid of the bees, I keep my distance, but he has no fear of being stung. We fifind a rhythm, a division in our labour that moves us forward.
We learn to build shallow bridges to one another, cemented by an unspoken loss.
As the earth turns the seasons change, bringing new canopies of stars, ripe for wishing on. He is flfluent in the language of the hive. This place is his colony, part of his chemistry. He is fourth-generation of a land that was gifted to his forefathers, returning soldiers from far-flflung battles. He kisses my belly and feeds me the fifirst of the honey crops, spoons of luminescent amber that makes our unborn baby kick with pleasure. We fifill jars with slow-moving sunshine and paint the nursery yellow for our baby boy, born too soon, in a dream he never wakes from. My son sleeps in a silver box by my bed and forces a wedge between us that we never speak of. I try to remember how to make art and grapple with the wide abundance of sky here that gives me vertigo. I am adrift with no history to anchor me. I see in light and shade, difffferent variations of
things that could have been. I paint seascapes in pools of tears, vivid oils with palette knives drawn across horizons. The huge canvases of the sea that hold my grief, eventually shrink to watercolour postcards of native animals that the tourists love. My husband draws butter knives over artisan breads smeared with liquid gold that he now feeds to tourists. He sees in black and white and no longer feels the sting. The bees and the waves are his sanctuary. I spend time in the company of sugar gums, drawing the jewelled bodies of solitary bees and Christmas beetles. We climb across granite boulders together to watch the sun cast blood-red shadows over forbidding rocks, but never stay to watch the stars come out anymore. We learn to build shallow bridges to one another, cemented by an unspoken loss. The bees knew my husband died before I did, swarming to the shed in a throbbing plume. I know they tried to tell me in a language I had no currency in. The policeman, who arrived with the broken surfbfboard and anxious eyes, translated it for me. I open the curtains every night to watch the beacon as it stands sentinel. We both stare out to sea for long ghosted ships. I feel less alone in its presence. I fifind myself at the lighthouse every day, inching my way down the slippery steps to Admirals Arch. Below, the cliffffs give way to a window of splintered rocks looking out to the ocean, where the occasional fur seal sits, slick and coal black, on a slab of outcrop. I need to be here most days, knowing the spray that blows on my face once touched him, rolled over his body, washed past his lungs, that even in the most diluted portions, a mere drop in the ocean, he is still here. The islanders, who I never took the time to understand, bring me food and remind me to eat. It is wrapped in stories about my husband when he was young: fragments, photographs, school clippings, treasured scraps of his history. I fall in love with him all over again. They speak of his life and theirs, histories blended and bring other unexpected gifts: family tales of distant ancestry, journeys and arrivals. Until I realise that all are migrants here. Even the bees mourn and whisper, to remind me they too arrived from Italy a lifetime ago, that a life can be made wherever you land. I try to picture his face sometimes, on the road to Cape du Couedic that fifirst day, but, like wet clay under my fifingers, the memory keeps changing. I can’t hold onto it and, slippery, it fades into nothing. It will be seven months until I see it again, unexpectedly. I still have no aptitude for making honey. I cannot swallow it, for the lump in my throat. Time has taught me the light is still there, even if I can’t see it, just as stars only appear when it’s dark enough. Now someone else loves the business of honey-making. She is a quick learner with a passion for bees. Only seven years old and the image of her dad. I still paint, but half my studio is now given over to bees, swarming my life, frames, wax and smokers. Nets that make shrouds for my canvases. If art is to create, to breathe life into the inanimate, I have found my calling. I am carefully sculpting tiny cups out of beeswax. You need a gentle touch. Each one must be attached to a wooden frame by hand. A row of miniature sleeping bags, strung up like socks on a washing line. Maisy likes to help me grow the queens. Our queen bees make homes in hives across the world. When each cocoon is ready, my daughter gently lifts a baby bee from its cell into a waiting cup. She’s very quiet because she says the larvae are sleeping. To each one she whispers the same thing, “Now the worker bees will feed you up until you are nice and fat, then you can become a queen.” She is flfluent in the language of the hive, like her father before her, a fififth-generation islander. I tell her this frame of bees is special, bound for Italy where the fifirst bees on the island came from so long ago. The prodigal daughters returning home. The cycle of life turns. My daughter, born after her father could hold her, will always know him through the colonists and chemistry and the shared history of this landscape, watched over by a beacon of light, hidden in plain sight, that will always guide her home.