HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS
The curtains were useless. Thin fabric, as transparent as the window itself: 5am and already the sun was hot on my eyes, even though they were closed. Down the hall I could hear noises, someone awake. Already.
I looked over at my bed-mate, my sister. Younger, still asleep. I blew on her face.
She woke, opened her eyes, then squished them closed again. “Ow. Bright.” she said. And then, “What time is it?” “Grandma is crazy,” I said. “She’s already up. It’s 5am.” “It’s too hot,” she said, and tried to roll away from the light. I held her hair, gently, so she couldn’t. “You can’t go back to sleep,” I said. “Why?” “Because I can’t.” I said. “Grandma’s taking us somewhere.” “I don’t want to go,” she said. “I’m on strike. We’ve been abandoned, so I’m on strike.”
Our parents were in Italy. Biking on tiny, dusty roads. Drinking wine from unlabelled bottles. Eating the most amazing tomatoes.
We were not in Italy. We’d been dumped at Grandma’s, surrounded by fields, litter-strewn and over-grown. “We’re not abandoned,” I said. “It smells weird here,” said my sister. “Still,” I said.”We have to get up.” It was about a million degrees out, but Grandma had us put on our wellies. “It’s safer,” she said. “Where are we going?” asked my sister. “Out,” said Grandma. Her own wellies were green and cracked about, way too big. Grandpa’s, I realised. They used to be Grandpa’s. “Out where?” “To the dump,” said Grandma. She opened the door and strode off. Grandma didn’t drive, so we walked, hot wellies sticky on sweaty calves, through tall grass and thistle and dirt, silent under burning sun. Grandma was wearing a hat, a baseball cap; I wished I’d thought of that.
The dump is just a basic dump, not the city kind, with staff and recycling and things, just piles of garbage, mostly old machinery, in a fenced-in bit of a field that, otherwise, was just a field. No one else was there.
Grandma stopped walking. “There,” she said. She pointed at some old seats from a car. The rest of the car was gone. She walked over and sat in one.
“Gross,” whispered my sister. “Here,” said Grandma. We sat next to her. It smelled of metal and heat and rot. “OK,” said my sister. “That was nice. Time to go home?” “Shh,” said Grandma. My sister was quiet. We watched the trash. And then, a bird flew out from under a burnt-out tractor. Out, and up. Then another, and another, and another, until there were 20, maybe 30 birds, all flying up, careening, swooping, dancing.
We watched them, mouths open. They danced for two minutes, maybe three. And then were gone. We watched the sky where they’d been, not ready for it to be over.
“There used to be more,” said Grandma. “There used to be hundreds more.”
“Yeah?” asked my sister. “Yes,” said Grandma. “Hundreds and hundreds.” “It’s still beautiful,” said my sister. “Yes,” I said. “Yes,” said Grandma. We walked back with her in front, leading us, through grass high and green and yellow and longer than our breath, our days.
Author and academic Emma Hooper is also the musician behind Waitress For Bees, in which she takes to the glockenspiel and musical saw as accompaniment to songs about dinosaurs and insects. Her new novel, Our Homesick Songs, is published by Fig Tree, and her simple pleasure is “running, alone, rain or shine.”