by Catherine Mauk
In November, my sister’s husband, a lifelong diabetic, went into heart failure. Doctors successfully inserted heart stents, small mesh tubes, to open his coronary arteries. During the procedure he had a mild heart attack. In December, surgeons attempted to insert more stents to enable blood flow to another part of his heart, but the procedure failed. Open heart surgery was proposed as a future option.
It is now January. In Alaska, where my sister and her husband live, snow piles in the driveway and drifts down the back slope to the river. Their house sits in the cold shadow of short days. Despite the seven stents that keep arteries open in my brother-in-law’s legs, circulation to his lower legs is constricted, his legs cramp, and he cries out in pain in the night. He has returned to work, but his concentration lapses and he struggles with his memory. My sister and her husband worry about the loss of his job, the loss of his health insurance, the loss of the life they know. They worry about losses they cannot bring themselves to name out loud. Each of them is seeing a separate therapist for depression. The unspoken resentments and disappointments of 37 years have become a bellicose rumbling. They have stopped eating meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, avocados, and all other fats in a war on cholesterol. They have lost weight. They are starved of joy. Each night they fortify themselves with martinis - Vitamin M.
I ring repeatedly from Australia where the inferno of summer slows time. My sister has stopped answering her phone. “Call me,” I say to the voicemail, curbing the concern in my voice.
The preceding August, my sister and her husband left their twenty-year-old daughter in Spain to attend university. The night they flew back to Alaska, their daughter’s roommate was drugged and raped and dumped on a sidewalk in Barcelona. At the same time, though not related to the incident with her roommate, my niece began vomiting black blood. My sister held this news inside for weeks. She held inside the unpleasantness of her trip to Spain: the press of people, the foul smells, her husband’s failing health, her torn rotator cuff, gastro poisoning from contaminated olives, the death of a man with a mouth full of rotten teeth whom she attempted to resuscitate at a bus stop in Madrid.
When she finally wrote to me in late September, it was not about Spain but of autumn: “nearly clear blue sky with a sprinkling of cloud puffs, golden leaves of birch mixed with the dark green spruce, a dusting of snow on the peaks. Have thoughts today of driving out Turnagain Arm to catch a glimpse of the migrating snow geese.” She wrote of the outback where we had gone when she visited me in Australia the previous September ̶ the year before Spain ̶ of the dingo we saw at dusk, of her longing to return.
The day we saw the dingo had had a difficult start. My sister and I had a clash of tempers. We were all edges as I ground the gears of our 4WD and headed out of Alice Springs towards the MacDonnell Ranges, the stony rises and chasms that are the remnants of ancient mountains once as high as the Himalayas. The vexation between us evaporated as we entered a desert that had become a rowdy botanic garden after unusually heavy winter and spring rains. Meadows of yellow cassia, salt spoon daisies, and desert fuchsia spread across the floor of red earth. We couldn’t stand the distance. We clambered out of the car and walked into the desert where the blur from the windows contoured into the particular. Dormant Ruby Dock, which had looked like fading autumn leaves from the car, turned into pink pouches veined in ruby that hung in clusters from soft green stems. Spinifex sported copper tips that rattled in the breeze. Budgerigars pecked noisily at a feast table of Spinifex seeds in the camouflage of grasses. Suddenly, hundreds of budgies rose from the clearing and streaked the sky with lime, shifting direction en masse, first one way, then another, and another, as if pushed and pulled by currents, before diving back into cover. When I turned to look at my sister, she stood in a band of sunlight, her hair a shimmer of platinum, her mouth open, her arms raised as if to catch the moment with her whole body.
Many times we stopped the car and spilled into the bush to fill our senses with the desert. Our ears captured the songs of rufous whistler, mistletoe bird, and zebra finches marking their territory as they flitted from branch to branch. At Trephina Gorge, clouds of grasshoppers swarmed around us on the trail. We climbed from the cliff down to the river, rolled up our pants legs, took off our boots and socks and waded into the milky red water. The coolness swirled around our ankles and calves as we scrubbed our feet along the coarse sand and moved deeper into the gorge where blazing walls of rock closed us in on two sides.
We were like a pair of ballroom dancers practiced in our routine, taking cues from one another through the tiniest of motions – a nod, a turn of the head, a change in gaze, a press on the arm, a hand to the heart - to stop, to listen, to regard. Words were rarely necessary between us.
We came across a young woman, also wading in the river. She had a Glossy Black Cockatoo feather banded in scarlet stuck in her hair. “How beautiful!” I said as we pushed through the water past one another. She stopped, reached up to the feather, pulled it from her thick brown plait, and handed it to me without a word. Smiling, she turned and continued, her long skirt dragging through the water. As much as I wanted the feather, I offered it to my sister. Feathers, shells, rocks, and pieces of wood are often our most treasured gifts from one another.
We left Trephina Gorge driving away from the receding sun to N’dhala Gorge, where we hoped to hike to ancient rock carvings. But we had dallied. We had stopped to inspect a frill-neck lizard sitting on the road absorbing heat. By the time we reached the turnoff to N’dhala Gorge, the sun was too low in the sky for us to attempt driving over sandy river beds and into unknown bush.
At dusk, the dingo appeared from out of nowhere. He saw us at the same time we saw him. He ran parallel to our car until we stopped in the middle of the empty road. Then, he veered in front of us. He could have been a stray dog with his curled tail and ginger coat, shiny and neatly matted, but for the fire in the eyes. He fixed us in his gaze with an unnerving penetration as he moved in front of the car and continued to watch us as he crossed the road. When he reached the edge of the road he gave us a final look, then broke into a run and disappeared into the bush.
We sat in in the stillness with all the windows down, breathing in the coolness and slight moisture that infused the evening air. Surrounded by the vast outback, it felt as if we and the dingo were alone in the desert, that it belonged to the three of us, that the three of us belonged nowhere else. It was as if my sister and I too had crossed that road with our smouldering wildness and released ourselves into the bush.
We drove on in silence. A full moon was on the rise with Venus watching on. As neither of us was in a hurry to leave the bush, we pulled off the road to drink a beer and watch the clouds streak across the moon. Black descended around us like a lace curtain backlit by moon silver.
“Sometimes, a day like this is the only thing that makes sense to me,” my sister said.
A week later, we were on the south coast of New South Wales. In contrast to the desert, grey watery skies and cold air draped over our days. The sea churned. The wind blew. On a day when the weather confined us to the house, my sister disappeared into her room for hours. “Join me,” I said each time she reappeared in the living room where I was curled up on the couch reading. She paced for a few minutes, then again retreated to her bedroom. I worried about what churned inside her.
“I love the sound of the wind,” she said to me at dinner. “In my room I could lie on my bed and hear it like a song, drift with it. I kept coming back into the living room, but it wasn’t the same, and all I wanted to do was go back to my room so I could float on the wind.”
The weather cleared the next day. We hiked down the headland and onto the beach to walk to Mossy Point. My sister fell behind. I waited for her to catch up several times. At one point when she joined me she said, “Do you know there are over 400 different species of seaweed?” and leaned down to scoop up a handful of leathery jade strands dotted with green pearls of seaweed fruit. For an hour we picked through the seaweed that had washed up on shore the length of the beach. We identified nine different types. There was the jumble of grapelike balls tethered by green rope and the seaweed that looked like boughs from a pine tree. Some was rust coloured, some a dirty brown purple, other olive. One bunch looked like the charred remains of a fire. Another, like green petticoats.
I think often of those weeks with my sister. About how we let our spirit selves run with the dingo with the fire in his eyes to howl and wail into the soft curtain of night. I imagine my sister drifting on wind currents or riding the tide wrapped in seaweed, protected from the pain for which she has no words. I think of how we are with one another in nature in a way we are with no other. Of our comfortable silence. But now, with time and distance between us, I worry about her silence. I once read that the dingo mates for life. When it loses its mate, the dingo may mourn itself to death. This is what I fear for my sister, that her grief will consume her.
A short email arrives in late February. “The wind is blowing,” my sister writes, “and my tree out front is covered with cedar waxwings eating the beautiful red berries. They come thru every winter and strip the trees. I love listening to the wind and seeing the trees bend under its power.”
Cathy Mauk left the US 23 years ago for the love of a man and has been living in Australia ever since. She came to writing late, but is making up for lost time. She has been published in PAN: Philosophy, Activism and Nature, an Australian journal. She was long listed for the 2013 Calibre Prize, Australia’s premier essay prize. In 2012, she was accepted to Breadloaf in Sicily. She is currently revising a completed memoir Out of Place, which deals with place and identity, and is developing a collection of essays about our emotional, cultural, and moral relationships with place.