Mountain Caves

My earliest memory is an aunt of no relation teaching me the birds and the bees. I can recall that lesson with remarkable lucidity. The aunt, with hairless, lightly bruised legs and a short green skirt, is crouching over her infant daughter, or perhaps a granddaughter – I was too young then to understand age. Aunt’s hair is darkly dyed and tightly permed: she is changing the girl’s nappy on our kitchen floor as the curtains curl in the September breeze. It must be mid-morning, but the sun is ember red out the window and the neighbours in their yard are muttering in grizzled voices, tipping empties into bins and slamming flyscreen doors in a clanking, rattling rhythm.

Aunt peels back the yellowed scrub of cloth and holds the thrashing, fleshy legs apart.
‘This is a vagina,’ she says with her dry fingers curled over flabby ankles, held like a roasted rabbit. ‘You put your penis in there when you have sex.’ Her mouth is muffled now, lips pressed on a safety pin while pulling a fresh wipe from a pink and blue container. The wipes, as I remember them, flow out in one long wet ribbon, like a magician’s trick. She scoops crusty flakes from the lumpy girl’s puffy folds, the legs kick harder and a ghoulish coo comes from the girl’s mouth before Aunt covers her again in a new nappy, her sagging legs snapping free and chubby arms waving, erratic.

I tiptoe back to my room and lie on the bed. My brother is distracted. He rams one of my plastic knights into a rubber dragon until the lance breaks and he growls and curses in the dark. The blue blinds are closed and the room is small. I take from my store of crayons and draw in thick black lines the same face I always do: a man with a second mouth burrowed inside his forehead, wide eyes encircled with deep lines. These pictures, amassed in a marble grey folder, will be shown to the psychiatrist when I am old enough for teachers to be concerned.

When my mother comes home, her heels little pin hammers in the hallway, I stride out into the kitchen with sheets of paper in hand. The women are talking low, so I cannot understand them. The light is dim, the curtain no longer curling and the baby nowhere to be seen. When the women turn, alarmed to be interrupted, the sheets are on the floor, and I yank down my pants to tell them, ‘Look, here, at my penis!’ One of them, I don’t remember which, swats at me with a very long hand, shrieks, ‘Nasty boy!’

I thunder back to my room – it feels a long way, or I feel slowed, as in a cruel dream. I squirm into the cavern of the doona, gurgling and giggling an ecstasy known only to me in the soft sea of the covers, and to all children deep in their little caves.