The Fern Tattoo (2007)
In almost the beginning there was the lighthouse – the lighthouse, and the houses beside it. As if all along, without knowing it, they had been waiting for the world to commence and at last it had. One day on the point there were only the scrub and the rock and the almost constant wind, and sometimes – once, but she imagined them the rest – a small group of half-naked aborigines, one of them with a red cloth around his neck, and a woman with a sky-blue skirt, looking silently out over the sea far below, as if they were waiting for something to appear, or fearing that it would, and the next there were bullock-drays from Paradise labouring slowly up the slope behind the Settlement, broadening the rough track as they went, loaded with wood and tools and bags of cement, with the bearded, bespectacled man Mr Talbot, and the workmen, and all that was needed to set up camp.
She had been watching the large, blue-black bird under the spiky bush that had just, in the last few days, burst open at the centre with its tumble of huge red seeds, hard and shiny as sea pebbles. But the bird was not interested in red things, only blue, and had been collecting them all morning to arrange about the floor of the elaborate nest it had made in the long grass between the boulders in the flat space near where the gully gave out. Blue flower petals, pieces of blue glass from a broken medicine bottle, a bit of blue cloth, a blue bead that must have been washed up by the tide, as if the bird wanted to make for its mate, on the forest floor, an imitation of the sky above, that it could otherwise only see bits of through the high canopy of the trees. She knew it was for its mate because a speckled green bird of almost exactly the same size showed great interest, but only when the other was not around, or pretending not to be. And anyway, you can’t help but know these things, living amongst the bush animals. She had even, when they were not drinking or fighting, seen her father and Mary, when they didn’t know, and that was alright.
She had made a scavenger-hunt for the bird out of bits of the old blue envelope she had found under the bedroom cupboard, so covered with dust and grime it was clear that nobody wanted it, but that was days ago and so far the bird had only found three pieces, and already the green one had come when it wasn’t looking and inspected the work, and one time, when the blue-black bird was far off on the ridge somewhere, stood in the middle of the nest, amidst the pieces of blue, and sang a sudden, loud, bright song, as if it was bursting with approval. One day she would learn that these were called bower birds, and the sudden new name for something so familiar would momentarily astonish her, but she did not know this now. There were so many things that she did not yet know. Perhaps her father knew, and might have told her it she had asked, not that he was a man who taught, but if you do not know that there are names then it is unlikely that you will know to ask what those names are. And, of course, not knowing the name for something need not mean that you do not know that thing very well indeed.
She was, in any case, watching it fussing with a piece of shell that was not very blue at all – wondering, along with the bird, whether the blue would do – when she caught the first faint edge of the shouting, not from the lagoon, where shouting most often came from, but from somewhere way off in the bush on the other side of her, a different kind of shouting altogether. And as she knelt there on all fours listening, every hair on her scalp bristling at its root and her heart thumping blindly in her chest, the shouting got louder, began to intermingle with sounds of wood and metal and leather straining, until it was not very far away at all and she had worked out where it would be and there was just enough time to find Warden and take him there with her because it was safer with two and anyway, since her father was up in the valley, he might never believe her if she saw it alone, for the men were now making chiacking sounds and shouting to one another and swearing as her father did when they were pulling a log and it was evident that something important was going on. And the blue-black bird had by now fled, leaving only the traces of blue to show that it had ever been.
So it was that Alice and her four-year-old brother first saw the team of bullocks and the laden dray, the frothing tongues of the huge animals lolling and their eyes bulging as they strained to drag their small mountain of cargo up the rise. Those names, at least – bullocks, dray – their father did tell them when he returned, although he seemed far from pleased to hear of their coming, and went off almost immediately to the Jebbs’ shack to tell the brothers about it, leaving Mary as always to get Alice and Warden something to eat and not returning, as almost always, until he could barely stand.
The following morning, having walked up to the point to see what it was that was going on there, he seemed a little more reconciled. ‘A lighthouse!’, he announced, with a mixture of pleasure and awe, and even offered to take them all there, off his own bat, Mary too, at some indefinite time in the future, to show them the workings.
She did not wait. The next day, the second after they had first appeared, the bullocks and the empty dray came back down the track they had just widened, with only the one man driving this time, and less than a week later appeared again, fully re-laden, labouring up the same way. This time there were other men with them, leading horses, and it was one of these, a young man, clean-shaven, with yellow hair and his trousers tucked into muddy, high black boots, who saw her where she was half-hiding with Warden and dismounted, and called out to them to come and walk alongside. He called her Ginger and thought she was a boy at first, until she told him, and he explained what she already partly knew, that they were building a lighthouse up on the point, high over the sea, where the light could tell sailors at night where they were (‘Near the circle of stones?’ ‘Yes, almost on top of it, since that is the highest point’). The cement that was loaded on the dray, he said, was to make big concrete blocks, since there was no quarry close by, and cut stone would be too hard to carry. Would they like to see them making the blocks?, he asked, and – just as they were turning away, since Warden was not keeping up and was already complaining and wanting to go back – why didn’t she come up to the point sometime soon, to see what was happening?
So that three days later – her father not remembering and having now gone back up the valley to the timbercutting, and Warden having apparently forgotten so that she could tell him that she was going to look for oysters on the lagoon without fear that he would want to follow – she started out early, and took herself to the point, not by the bullock track but by the cliff path, only now and again stopping to drop stones or watch the waves crashing on the rocks way below, or the shifting patterns the breeze made on the deep blue water, or the tiny, rocking dots of the fishing boats from the Settlement or Paradise Bay far out, half-way between one head and the other.
When she got up to where the men were working she stayed back at the edge of the scrub to watch, taking care to be only partly invisible, in the hope that the young man who had talked to them earlier would turn and see her and be friendly again. But in the end, although no-one had shown any signs of seeing, it was the older man, with the beard and spectacles, who came over saying in a kind and gentle voice from a fair way away so that she didn’t think to run off, ‘Hello Missy. Don’t be afraid. Have you come to see us working? No point trying to hide with hair as bright as that. Why don’t you come closer, so you can see better? We’ll be having some tea in a little while. Perhaps you would like to join us. There’s damper, too, and jam.’
In a cleared space between the tents on the other side of the workings a smokeless fire was burning in a circle of stones, its flames almost invisible in the mid-morning sun. Even as the bespectacled man spoke to her one of the others was hanging a quart pot on an iron frame and another man had stopped and was stuffing a pipe as if he had decided that work was over for the time. Before he took her over to join them, however, the bespectacled man showed her the wooden boxes that they poured the concrete into, and how the frames could be undone after the blocks had set, to be used again and again. Each of the blocks took all of the four men there to lift it, he said, but already they had made a good many – twenty a day, he said – and dug, as deeply they could in the place they had chosen, the foundations of a circular wall with what looked like the shape of a two-roomed house projecting from the side of it.
‘Is that where the lighthouse man will live?’
‘The keeper? No, Missy. I hope not,’ the man smiled: ‘I am going to be the lighthouse keeper, if all goes well, and I have a family of four to think about, one of them a young woman of almost exactly your age, as I guess it. And I will need an assistant keeper, and he will need a house of his own too. No. These will be storerooms for the kerosene and such like. There will be a house over there for my family and me,’ he said, pointing to a broad clear space a little below them on the bay-side of the point, out of the wind, ‘and a smaller house beside it.’
‘You will be the lighthouse keeper?’
‘Yes, my little lady. While it seems an unusual procedure even for these colonies, it appears as if I am to be the builder as well as the keeper of this place. … Mr John Talbot,’ he said, bowing slightly in friendly mock-formality, ‘and what is your name, if I may be so bold?’
‘Alice’, she said, and then, nervously, as if he might not want to hear the rest, ‘Alice Hawk.’
At thirty-one, Tony Wu, seven years out of Shanghai, would have said he had practiced his art on all possible kinds, until he met the pale, red haired librarian: sailors, butchers, street vendors, garbagemen, soldiers, prostitutes, boxers, draymen, gamblers, pimps, studs, dancers, thieves, the occasional bored housewife, or nurse from the hospital, or city politician – even, once, a beautiful lady from Vaucluse, who had him tattoo down her lower spine a large and remarkable tulip, so that, on nights of particular daring, at cocktail parties or society balls, she might wear such dresses as threatened to expose its scarlet head or even some small portion of its leaves or stem, which he had done in the deepest green available. But never anyone like the silent, owl-eyed creature with her white, bookish skin and tightly-wound red hair, who looked as if she had drifted from the surface of an ancient wall during the last hours of darkness and been stranded by the morning at his door. For that is how, coming back with his sweet pork dumplings from Bao Lu’s, he had found her, examining intently, almost with reverence, the photographs of heavily-tattooed torsos displayed in one of the two long window-cases outside. And, as he thought, had immediately scared her away, with a comment, intended as a joke, at the doubtful propriety of rich ladies staring at half-naked men, that had somehow – so strangely and instantaneously had his mouth dried and his throat constricted when she looked up at him, her large eyes blinking the once and once only, as if to swallow and dismiss him – come out the wrong way.
She had left, in any case – fled, as he thought of it, as a frightened bird might – without speaking, leaving him standing with his still-steaming dumplings, his keys still dangling from his hand. And for an hour or more as the day got under way, and even again that evening and at sporadic points in the days following, he had rehearsed the scene, changing the words, shifting the emphasis this way and that – the English language was always like this – fruitlessly, as if such a woman would ever come back to a door such as his – as if, he soon came to think, a woman like that had ever really existed, and was not some stray piece of a forgotten dream, thrown up by the incalculable weather of dreams. For dreams, for him, had all gone askew, taken such strange forms since he had landed in this place, amongst these unfathomable ghosts.
But she did return, several weeks later, with a request that bore no apparent relation to their earlier encounter – that might even at the time have been already in her mind. As, indeed, it had, for several minutes, by the time the tall, greatcoated Chinese man had startled her out of her reverie with a comment that she did not catch, and then his sudden nervous laugh, and she had not had time to wait to find out but had had to hasten off for the Nara train, which she was then in danger of missing.
‘A fern? Leaf? A piece of plant?’
‘No. The fern itself. The whole fern, but small. Many fronds,’ and she drew out of her purse a folded drawing, in pencil, to show him.
‘Yes, leaves, like these, small branches. But small, it only has to be small…. Here…’, and she scrabbled at her right sleeve, its buttons, pulling up the fabric to show him, the wrist-veins blue through the immaculate alabaster of the inner arm, then turning it, slightly, to indicate a place: ‘To go here.’
‘The whole fern? With roots? Not cut?’
‘Yes. Not cut. The whole plant, with roots, so that it might grow … though I don’t want to see the roots necessarily… Can you do it?’
He knew that at this point he could not, but would, somehow, to make sure this astonishing ghost came back.
‘Can you bring me this fern, some of it?’, he asked, the drawing giving him only the beginnings: ‘and then I will work out a design, to show you.’
‘That will be difficult: I leave tomorrow.’ And then, thinking: ‘Let me try. Are you here this afternoon? Late? I could bring you some then.’ For she had remembered the fernery at the Botanical Gardens at the bottom of Macquarie Street.
The next day, having brought him a small, stolen specimen the evening before, she came back, by arrangement, to see what he had done. She was delighted. His drawing was exquisite, intricate, given the small space she proposed, and with exactly the distinctive fineness, the clear, sharp edges, as on Chinese porcelain, that had attracted her in his window display. Although it was Sunday and she imagined it a great presumption to ask, she did, and stayed, several hours, while he worked, leaving on the four thirty train with the first fronds raw and moist on her hot arm.
And he, who had drawn thirteen pictures to arrive at the one which so pleased her, and who had stayed up half the night doing so, had now touched her, stretched the young skin of her inner arm, inserted the needle three hundred times, the merest fraction of an inch, watching the ink vein out as its tiny filaments took root, wiping away the small spots of blood and the excess pigment, praying all the while to the strange spirits of this place that she would be pleased, that she would come back. Not knowing how pleased. Not knowing what had begun.
She came back, almost a month to the day, wanting another fern, and to tell him about cycads. And came back again, month after month while her course in librarianship continued, and thereafter almost as regularly, for she made the time out of holidays, out of the need to visit library suppliers, out of the need to shop for books. Once, on her first true holiday, she stayed out in Abbottsford with a relative of a friend, and came in several times on the tram. Once, having arranged a substitute at the library, she managed almost a month over Christmas, in a small flat she had rented high over the beach at Tamarama, and would come in to the dark, cramped shop on the lane off Layton Street twice a week. It was all he could manage, he told her, given the volume of his other work, although in truth it was as much the intensity of the concentration, and the ambiguous pleasure of it, that was sometimes almost ecstasy, and the fear that the work might end all the sooner if he did not so carefully pace it.
He had worked on all kinds of designs, in the fifteen years since leaving his apprenticeship with Lin Ch’ou, from the word Mother, in its manifold forms, to the names of ships, and lovers, to ships’ prows, mermaids, naked women, dragons, eagles, flags, but never anything like the ideas she brought to him, of tall trees and clinging vines, forest spaces, cabbage palms, burrawangs, finches, tiny rock lizards. As if she had sensed, that first day at the long window, a range and depth in him – a possibility – that he had not known he possessed, or had in herself enough power of vision to coax from him what was needed. Bringing him plants, drawings, books, instructing him to go to this place or that, to look, she now directed him, he sometimes thought, like a chancellor from the royal court might have directed one of the artisans working on the Forbidden City, or the statues in the Zhou Gardens, or as the stern Ice Goddess directed Xi Zheng in his Thousand Tasks, and it was never quite clear whether what took form was the artisan’s masterpiece or that of the chancellor whose instrument the artisan was.
Working on her arm at first, thickening the ferns about a space left clear (‘With spaces left’, she had said, ‘for things to come after.’ ‘Spaces?’ he had asked – ‘like mist, in valleys, seen from the side of a mountain?’ ‘Yes,’ she had answered, having never seen it that way, but understanding immediately, ‘like mist, small clouds of mist.’), he then, session by slow session, advanced toward the shoulder, moving gradually into the inner arm, with vines, strange plants she would bring him, or send him to the Botanic Gardens to see. And then moved to the other arm, starting several inches above the wrist, since she wanted nothing of this to be seen, moving eventually to the back, where tall trees were to stand, leaving much space open, much to be developed, a blue-print of an exotic forest he himself had never seen – which seemed, at first, a thing out of pure imagination – though he came, as the sessions progressed, increasingly to believe in.
Each time, after the initial discussion and agreements, she would sit or lie there in silence, baring such parts of her body as were necessary as if they were not really her own, treating the softest, smoothest skin, the rarest jade, as if it were so much stretched canvas, or a strange, rich soil for a garden she was impatient to see bloom. For hours at a time his meticulous, repetitive puncturing, his slow, concentrated breathing, hers, the most intense absorption on the one part, a kind of trance on the other. Having given him her instructions, unable then to physically move away, she seemed to leave him, so that he might continue his work alone and in peace, and to go off to some place deep within herself. Inch by inch, he came to know those parts of her body upon which he worked as surely even she could never have known them, and yet still, after the one, then the two hundred hours, knew almost nothing of her. Even, sometimes, glancing up – as would happen, by accident or through some sense or magnetism operating beyond consciousness – would encounter her eyes, like some bird’s or serpent’s, watching him, attent, piercing, as if the mind behind them were of some other order entirely, and he as foreign to it as it was incomprehensible to him.
It became so that his months leaned towards these sessions. As each new visit approached, a pressure would mount within him, an anxious anticipation, that left him stunned, when she had gone, to discover that what had stretched almost intolerably so many of the days before it, so that it had seemed they would never be over, had itself passed so quickly, in an irrecoverable dream, and he was an outcast again from this strange paradise she had had him make and, in the making, enter. Sometimes, left with another need, another pressure, that had come with the relieving of the first, he would seek out one of his earlier clients, a woman who had helped him before, and use her urgently, and find, as often as not, that that had been a feint, a mistaken signal of the body – that it had not identified or satisfied the need at all. He would think, sometimes, or dream, that the forest was a thing of its own, a separate being, that had begun to enfold them both, and would not have been surprised to find, as he eventually did, the ink from these sessions only reluctantly quitting his hands, leaving here the ghost of a cycad-leave – the tiny thorn at its tip – or there the minuscule, uncurling end of a new frond of elkhorn, or perhaps it was the nip of a possum, to which he had just foolishly, unknowingly, offered a fresh, fat grape …