and the win­ner is...

THE HID­DEN LIGHT

Country Style - - SHORT STORY COMPETITION - BY SUZAN­NAH CHURCH­MAN

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.

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