‘On every new thing,’ writes W. G. Sebald, ‘lies the shadow of annihilation.’
I was in Grade One, my brother, kindergarten, and we were trailing Mum on the way home from school. She had to wait for us at intervals. The sight of her receding back pulled me along, but my feet were leaden. I had spent recess and lunch swinging on the monkey bars and now the heat was syrupy and my backpack, heavy.
‘Come on.’ She stopped, hands on hips, staring into space.
We turned down a street that wasn’t the usual route from school. A low fence had a wisteria winding around its entire length.
I was supposed to be hurrying – even my stubby-legged brother was ahead of me – but I stopped at the wisteria because there, at eye level, was a butterfly. Its wings were fanning: the brilliant orange, the black veins and white circles. A wanderer, I knew it was called. I held my breath. The space between Mum’s back and me was growing but this no longer worried me. I stretched my arm to the mauve mess of flowers that the butterfly was resting on. It stepped – one leg then another, then two more – aboard.
When next Mum called out I was full of that familiar feeling: the anguish at the gap between realising that a grownup didn’t understand and knowing how to make her see. But she must have noticed the way I was standing, my bowed head and careful concentration. I held my arm to my stomach and stretched my other hand, like a shield, before the butterfly. It stayed there, sitting on my arm, even as I started to walk.
Now I know that it was sipping the vapour of my skin with its feet, tasting me. I have also learnt that it is easy to coax a dying butterfly onto your finger. I read this just a week or so ago and, even across the twenty years that have passed since that butterfly stepped onto my arm, the fact was wrenching. So that’s what it was all about. It wasn’t that the butterfly had seen a yearning to commune with it that it had chosen, in the moment before it extended that first leg towards me, to trust.
I had an excuse for going slowly, now, and could not understand why Mum, with her appeals for me to walk faster, would not allow for the fact that there was a butterfly on my arm. There was a butterfly on my arm! It stayed there, on my arm, for the kilometre home.
While we call them wanderers, in their native North America they are known as monarchs. In 1870 three cyclones plucked enough of them from Vanuatu or New Caledonia and blew them across the Coral Sea to Australian shores. They survived on arrival because milkweed, on which the caterpillars feed, had already been introduced. Before then they had reached the Pacific Islands by flinging themselves across the ocean, the lucky ones hitching a ride on ship sails or riding wind gusts to a speck of land, untold numbers of others dying in the attempt.
I took the butterfly to show and tell in an ice-cream container stuffed with flowers. My classmates, cross legged on the floor, passed the open container around. When the butterfly flew in fright to the window and started zigging up and down in a frantic stutter, the teacher panicked.
‘It’s okay,’ I soothed as she waved her arms about and navigated desks and chairs. ‘Don’t worry, it will come to me.’ I stood on a table and reached as high as I could until my hand was beside the butterfly. It stilled. Then it turned towards my hand and climbed on.
‘What’s its name?’
‘It doesn’t have a name. Butterflies are wild.’
The next day I couldn’t find the butterfly. I checked in my room behind the porcelain lady and lacquered box, between the agate and thunder eggs I had collected from the mountains out my window.
By evening, I was despondent. The butterfly had left me. I couldn’t see that it was following its nature – wandering away – just that it had chosen to leave me behind.
I knew that looking at the stars might help with this low feeling, so, just before bedtime, I peeled back the blind a little. The speckle and froth of the Milky Way was distant, cold.
Something in the corner of my eye caught my attention. There, clinging to the back of the blind, was the butterfly. Ha!
I put my finger before it. It clambered aboard.
You know how this ends; I knew how it would end, too, because the butterfly was sluggish, its wings barely fanning as it sat on my dresser, where I placed it before bedtime.
When I woke it was taffeta, an old leaf. I sobbed.
Later, Dad’s eyes lit up: How about, when we bury it, we place it between the pages of an old telephone book? It seemed an odd, clinical idea; I was sure it would prefer the cool soil on its wings, but I could see Dad was pleased with himself and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
I knew, by the day’s end, that I was trying Mum and Dad’s patience, could feel that they were tiring of soothing and back-patting me.
‘Come on, Sweet Pea, it was just a butterfly.’
But it wasn’t just a butterfly. Why could grownups never understand? It was a butterfly that chose me.
In the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, there were dancing plagues in Europe. The afflicted couldn’t perceive the colour red. Some jumped until their ribs or femurs broke. It went on until the exhausted dancers fell to the ground.
Word had it that dance was therapeutic, that the dancing itself would cure the sufferers of their uncontrollable desire to do the same, and so authorities ordered music to be played so that the illness would run its course. This only encouraged more people to join.
Drums were banned; they caused the greatest frenzy. The major outbreak in Strasbourg in 1518 started with one woman on 14 July. After four days, thirty-four people were infected. Then two hundred. Within four weeks, more than four hundred were dancing, some of them to the death.
Paracelsus named the affliction chorea lasciva and wrote that the dancers struck with this illness were forced to dance. This was groundbreaking thinking, at the time. It was widely believed that the cause was spiritual, that the dancers were possessed by demons or enchanted by saints, but Paracelsus rightly believed that the origins of the malady resided in the suffers themselves. He speculated that the illness began in people’s ‘laughing veins … for their life is inflamed and is boiling within them’.
But it is said that the best dancers are not those who are beset with dancing to the death, but those who believe they are going to die.
Have you heard about the melancholia that can plague early adulthood? When it afflicted a young Plains Indian man, his warrior culture gave him a socially sanctioned, honourable way to confront it. His family would try to talk him out of it, but if he was set on his fate they would accept his resolve. He would vow, to the tribe, to meet death on the warpath – to race out recklessly to enemy lines for the duration of a warring season. In the height of youth and beauty, this is what he would decide. He would refuse the slow wasting of age, would be brave and foolhardy about the end and, with all the impatience of the young, would rush to meet it.
Because he was removing himself from society, he no longer had to respect its rules. He could snatch food from any cooking pot, and he could lie with any woman who offered herself to him without fear of retribution from her husband. Imagine the aura around him, the poignancy of the man to die. Admit it: you would suddenly notice this young man, this particular one among all the others, and would find it hard to pull your gaze from him.
You would cook special meals for him. You would encourage your woman to go to him. You would slip from the heavy embrace of your man as he slept, and patter through the dark to him.
He adorned himself richly, danced for anyone who wished to watch, was the centre of public adoration. And he danced beautifully: his pledge to seek death made his movements more focussed and innovative because any dance now could be his last. From somewhere he wrested great reserves of energy and endurance, and increasingly unexpected rhythmic variations; the spectacle of his youth and beauty was on display and I dare you to tear your eyes away.
When killed, he was mourned as deeply as any other.
I woke in Melbourne, at dawn, to a distressed friend’s call: ‘Algo muy malo ha pasado, Eli, algo muy, muy malo’ – Something really bad has happened, she repeated between sobs.
Percy and I had met Maite and Raul two years earlier; Maite and Percy had a few English classes together, and she and Raul had moved into a house right by us after emigrating from Venezuela.
Maite was funny and warm, and Raul was the kind to fix his gaze on you and listen with utmost concentration. A year after we met, he came over one night. He told us to take a seat on the couch and, once we did, stood before us.
‘What have we done?’ he asked.
Percy and I looked at each other.
‘We haven’t seen you for ages; tell me, I want to hear it, what’s the matter?’
We explained our movements during the two weeks since seeing them, and he breathed out.
‘You’ve got to understand,’ he said, ‘I worry because you’re our only family, here. We have no-one else.’
Wrenched out of my grogginess, I told Maite we would be right over; we were living a few suburbs away by then, so Percy and I took a taxi to her house and, murmuring in the backseat, conjured possibilities. It had to be something she’d just happened upon. Maybe she’d woken and come downstairs to discover that they’d been robbed?
On seeing the ambulance outside, I thrust the money into the driver’s hand and ran. Two paramedics barred our way; before we went in, they had to tell us something. Maite is inside, they explained, and they just had to be sure we were okay with him still being there – I don’t understand, I interrupted. They continued: It’s her husband, Roll (who the hell is Roll?); she found him on the lounge room floor this morning; there was nothing we could do.
We stayed with Maite until Raul’s family could get to Australia. We helped with funeral arrangements, Skyped with the family, contacted the embassy, wrangled with Immigration, sat with Maite, cooked for her, borrowed a car to drive her to the coroner, slept on her couch. I didn’t sleep in their bed with her because I thought it might still smell of him, and there was so little of him she had left, but each night I worried about that decision, thought of her alone in their bed above us.
The coroner did further tests. There was hope of an answer, at one stage, when they mentioned that recent studies had shown that the neurological and cardiovascular systems are more interlinked than previously thought, that maybe his epilepsy had caused his heart to stop. But they did more analyses, and it wasn’t that. It wasn’t a heart attack, or a seizure, or drugs, or anything else they had the ability to test. There was no comprehensible cause. His heart just beat, like all ours do, and then, without warning, it stopped.
We weren’t able to change our flights to South America a week and a half later. Our plan had been to separate so that Percy could spend some time with his family alone and I could do some solo travel down to Tierra del Fuego but, when the time came, the thought of being separated made me despondent.
Yet despite my trepidation, travelling alone and without a plan to that desolate, wind-swept place was, in a way, a relief: the features of that land – the stunted-tree-covered islands, speckled with snow; the expansive pampa, its occasional native geese, flamingos, ostriches and guanaco the only sign of life (they always seemed so alone, and so poignant for being so) – seemed to be an outer equivalent of the contours my thoughts were tracing. On British fisherman, Sebald wrote, ‘I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass, the flounder rise or the cod come in to the shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.’ Down at the tip of South America, the farthest point reached by humanity since we ventured out from our birthplace in Tanzania, I took comfort in something similar.
White dwarfs were once thought to be new stars because of their flurries of activity, their brightening, dimming and explosions, when their temperature can spike to 100-billion degrees and for weeks just one of them can outshine an entire galaxy. But now scientists know that these stars are not coming into being but are drawing to an end: the fireworks are their last hurrah, their grand finale.
It was almost Christmas. We were visiting Percy’s family in Peru, held fast in the embrace of their love and routine.
We sat down to lunch. There was a bang; Mamá cried out. It had sounded like a massive hunk of concrete had slammed onto the roof, but the roof hadn’t collapsed so it hadn’t been that. Papá’s face showed surprise, then a gradual, unwilling resignation into understanding. I followed him up to the roof. I could tell by his careful gait that he suspected something, that he was seeking confirmation. Furls of smoke were unravelling two blocks away.
‘Puuu,’ he lamented, forehead furrowed. He brought down an arm, motioned it towards the scene, bowed his head, shook it.
‘¡Amor!’ called Mamá from below. ‘¿Qué ha pasado?’
He made his way down the steps, past the gnarled cacti and tattered magenta bougainvillea, and turned on the radio, not for confirmation because the view from the roof had shown him what had happened – the slightest thing, he lamented, can set the powder off – but to hear whether everyone had survived unscathed.
A crackly voice announced it: a fireworks workshop, operating at full capacity for the festive season – the time of hurried hands and late nights, of quickly spraying the anti-static, of making shells that will adorn pyrotechnic towers hauled into the street or will be attached to a papier-mâché bull held above a young man’s head, spitting sparks either side as he runs through the throng, or will become whirlygigs and straight-shooting bursts of bright to make you gasp, your gaze fixed on the light dance, heeding its demand that you celebrate, right now, that you be part of this crowd, joyous for as long as the light and the night holds out – a fireworks workshop, in its busiest period, had blown apart.
The explosion took with it the workshop owner and hospitalised his son. Right there, two blocks’ distant, in the time it took for you to smile your thanks for the meal and pick up your fork.
In Alice Springs at Australia’s No. 1 Truckie’s ReUnion, after the National Road Transport Wall of Fame Award Presentation, Hayseed and I danced. His friend, my mother’s partner, had been inducted, and eighteen of us had flown up to witness it and celebrate his achievement. There were 500 at the dinner, seated around tables with burgundy and yellow balloons and serviettes supplied by Shell Rimula oil.
Hayseed has a voice that rasps out. He adopts a pose – arm squared on the table, shoulder towards you, head tucked low – and delivers a roll of jokes, his face scrunching, features drawing to the centre of one of the most expressive mugs I’ve ever seen: it’s part bull dog, part teddy bear.
He and his wife, Avalene, raised two sons. My mum’s partner told me once that their eldest had been in the backseat of a car that had crashed. He had spent six weeks in intensive care, one day plainly on the mend, the next sunk into critical again. After six weeks, they lost him.
I was dancing with my aunties and cousins at first, near the stage. Hayseed joined us. That he was on the dance-floor was the first surprise. That he was so light on his feet, this compact, heavy-set truck driver, was the second.
It’s always a tug-of-war, for me, between my love of dance and my self-consciousness. That night, it was a while before I started to believe my internal entreaties that no-one was watching, but it happened with him. We responded to each other’s moves with more moves, and the conversation continued like this, a constant sparking of surprise and delight, pulling some inspired variation from who knows where, the music thrumming through us. He didn’t say anything or show much expression, in contrast to his usual self.
When the band finished its set, we went back to our tables. But after that, when the music started up again, a hand was stuck out before me.
Mum told me later that he had said to her, ‘It nearly killed me – all I’ve poured down me throat has come outta me quicker than it went in – but I’ve got to have another go. I’ve just got to.’ And we did, for the final set, like old timers for the slow songs and separate for the fast ones; I’d never seen him like this, quiet and concentrating and absent, somehow, not puckering that face in preparation for entertaining you.
He thanked me, and I thanked him, but it was the look of mutual surprise and the unwillingness to let on how much fun we had had that struck me later. I know it was mutual because he came to our room first thing the next morning to thank me again. And when Mum responded that I hadn’t wanted to go to bed, he drawled, ‘Ahhh,’ shaking his head and drooping in bodily disappointment before barking, ‘Ya what?! You mean we could’a kept on?’
He said to Mum, repeatedly, at different moments during the day, ‘My-oh-my that girl of yours can dance.’ I can’t, not really; don’t get any fancy ideas of my dancing. It was just the joy of it, of both of us letting loose.
Later I was at the airport, heading home a few days before everyone else. Mum called. Could I see Hayseed and Ave anywhere? Could I find them and sit with them for her? Her tone rising.
While we had been dancing, their surviving son had been in the passenger seat of his newly purchased second-hand car, his girlfriend driving. Through a roundabout, the car sped up, and the girlfriend’s leg pumped frantically as they sped towards the tree. On impact, the airbag broke her nose. His side airbag failed.
A tooth was smashed out. There was a gaping hole in his skull, through which his brain was visible. Two of his vertebrae were crushed. Another vertebra was chipped; a rib, cracked. He was in a coma awaiting an operation to cut out some of his hipbone to put around his spinal cord, and to put three plates into his skull.
‘Jul,’ Hayseed had said to Mum when telling her, voice cracking, that their son had broken his neck in a car accident and was in intensive care – or maybe he said this later; it must have been later – ‘Jul, we must’a stepped on the grave of a busload’a Chinamen.’
Wayna Qhapaq was the youngest son of Tupaq Yupanki – tenth Sapa Inka of the Inka Empire, fifth of the Hanan dynasty, who died suddenly without naming an heir – and Mama Ocllo, namesake of the wife of the first Inka and Tupaq Yupanki’s principal wife. His mother and uncle quashed the claims of another potential heir and appointed a regent to tutor him in the ways of government until he was old enough to take his place as the eleventh Sapa Inka.
His father had expanded the empire until it was, at the time, the world’s largest; Wayna Qhapaq continued this campaign, pushing the frontier north to the Ancasmayo River so that the empire stretched two-million square kilometres and had perhaps twenty million subjects. He loved Quito, some said even more than Cusco, the empire capital to the south.
It is said that Wayna Qhapaq had a gold chain made to celebrate the weaning-and-hair-cutting ceremony of one of his sons, Waskar, and that it was as long as the chief market place in Cusco, had links as big as a man’s wrist and took more than two-hundred men to lift.
While he was fighting in the north, Wayna Qhapaq received word that the south-eastern frontier had been invaded by Guaraní speakers, who sometimes crossed the hot, semi-arid Chaco Plain and raided border settlements for bronze tools. Wayna Qhapaq dispatched a general to drive them away.
South of the Guaraní territory, almost ten years earlier, the Charrúa had borne witness to the arrival of Juan Díaz de Solís, who named the River Plate in 1516. He sailed one ship upriver to the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers with two officers and seven others. The Charrúa attacked the party, eating Díaz de Solís but sparing a boy, Francisco del Puerto, because of his age. When he learned of the attack, Díaz de Solís’s brother-in-law took charge of the waiting ships and returned to Spain, leaving del Puerto behind. The Charrúa wouldn’t have to worry about more Europeans for another ten years, when Sebastian Cobot arrived, rescued del Puerto and built the Sancti Spiritu Fort. (The Charrúa attacked the fort in 1529, set fire to it, killed most of the soldiers and destroyed a ship. When Cobot returned from an expedition to find the fort razed, he high-tailed it back to Europe.)
But the Europeans, whether it was those around the River Plate or the ones to the north of the Inka Empire, had unleashed something else.
After sending his general to control the Guaraní, Wayna Qhapaq undertook another expedition to subdue isolated pockets of resistance, during which he was pushed back from further expansion by the Shuar, who shrunk their enemies’ heads to the size of oranges to harness their souls. During this campaign, he learned that an epidemic had swept through Cusco. He left immediately for Quito, from where he would depart for Cusco to deal with the calamity. But he arrived in Quito at the same time as the epidemic. His wise men prophesied evil because, during a Festival of the Sun, an eagle was harassed by buzzards and then fell out of the sky.
In the early seventeenth century, an Andean chronicler recounted a legend of how Wayna Qhapaq then contracted what was probably smallpox: And at the time for eating there arrived a messenger cloaked in black; he kissed the Inka with much reverence and gave him a pputi, a box, locked with a key. And the Inka commanded that the same Indian open it, to which he replied that, forgive him, the Maker had ordered that it be opened only by the Inka. On hearing this the Inka opened the box, and from it fluttered butterflies or pieces of paper, scattering until they disappeared. This was the pestilence. Butterflies – those delicate, pretty things – were butterflies of sorrow, were harbingers of disease and death, unleashing untold sorrow and destruction into the world. And pputi, the only Kechwa word in the passage, means ‘box’ but, just as in English the word ‘creature’ is related to the word ‘creation’, it is linked to Kechwa terms for sadness, melancholia and affliction. Wayna Qhapaq, last of the great Sapa Inkas, died a death by butterflies.
I’m writing when he calls out: ‘¡Eli! ¡Necesito tu ayuda!’ The faint trickle and hiss of the shower stopped a few minutes ago. I pause, hands hovering over the keyboard, wondering whether his words are a kind of reflex, whether he’s lost something and, while searching, has called out for help as a matter of course. To go or to stay?
Then I hear my hairdryer start up. He has a cold; he’s going out for work drinks that he wishes he could avoid. When I bought the dryer a year ago, I had to learn to use it, to coordinate the brush in my left hand with the dryer in my right – who’d have thought it would be something you had to practice. So I slip from my chair, go to him.
‘You’ll have to crouch down,’ I tell him. He lowers himself onto his knees. I start pulling my round barrel brush through his hair, aiming the dryer onto it.
‘Tell me if it hurts.’
‘Why would it?’
‘The heat, or my aim,’ I explain. ‘If it’s hot on your scalp, tell me.’
I do it piecework. First the back’s lower layers. Luxurious is the only way to describe his hair. If I were blessed with half of it, half as thick, I would be ecstatic. It’s raven, shot through with greys that make his sister sigh and say that somehow his greys are not like hers; in his hair they don’t look like something you want to hide, they look like rain.
His forehead presses against my stomach and I look down onto his crown. The heat from this hairdryer now, in early July, is enough to lull me into drawing out the task.
He grows impatient, but there is so much of it, so I start on the other side, pressing the side of his face against me. He’s still, again, and I keep drying.
Finally, his patience ends and he says, ‘Ya está ya,’ and stands.
He looks in the mirror. His response is immediate: he lets out a long, appalled gasp. ‘Pendeeeja.’ I look at the reflection of some hair-luscious heartthrob who has time-travelled from the seventies. He presses his coif down and I bend over, barely managing to gasp between my laughing. ‘¡Pendeja!’
I try to tell him that no, it wasn’t intentional, I didn’t realise, I was just drying…but each time I catch sight of his reflection I burst into renewed laughter, which is not helping my case. My stomach hurts. I try to smooth his hair; he wets a comb and pulls it through it, I tell him it looks fine, not to worry, it’s…laughter. ‘Pendeja.’
How do I recover from this? How do I go back to writing when I’m so full of this feeling, when I have to defeat the urge to bar his way when he’s about to leave, when I’m overcome with the need to keep him here with me. What’s a relationship but watching someone leave, again and again, encouraging that someone to go and then pining all the while?
If you make sure to sleep, every night, with an ear pressed to your loved one’s chest, do you think that this will be enough? That what beats within will be forced to keep on for you?