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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing June 2023
Verity, short story by Kate McNamara.
Verity is thinking back to the wintry night that her great aunt had always described to her with such clarity and more than a touch of venom. Night, snow and the full moon under which she had been born, first daughter to a woman whose life had been moulded by hard men. A woman far too frail for the basalt soil of the high country, a woman who insisted she be named Verity, like a promise or a faith to keep. The woman had held to living long enough to name her and then with a sigh she had loosed her fragile grip on mortal life and crossed the last great border. Her great aunt would always begin to cackle in this part of the story.
Must’ve been the sight of ya. Morly, mucky little thing with lungs like a bloody Clydesdale. Lord Almighty you did scream and she did bleed, girl, ain’t never seen the like of it. Lord Almighty she did bleed.
It was a gruesome tale to tell a young child, Verity thinks, a tale, a name and a winter’s night, all she had left of her mother, an image of blood flooding out into the snow. It has become a kind of ritual with her over the years on the eve of her own birthday to try and picture the quiet woman who birthed her, who melted into the woodsmoke of memory, who was never spoken of by her husband or her sons.
Her brothers had become more embittered with the drought years, the sun became their enemy, the weather became a cruel and capricious God. And her father was not a man for talking, a grunt, a lifted eyebrow, he did not put his trust in words. She had always known how much she surprised him with her chattering, her little songs, her menagerie of invented friends and animals. She knew this as a child knows the truth of many things, as she knew how much he loved her. They were all dead now, all the ungentle ghosts, and tomorrow she would be 84 years old.
She looks out into the dappled night and watches the moonlight sift through the ancient pines to lie in patches on her quilt and the old tortoise shell cat turns to find a warmer place in the small of her back, seeking warmth against the midnight cold. She contemplates the growing sheet of frost on the roof of the hen house, her own personal barometer of the bitterness of the night and thinks how the ice will lace through the old willows like an unearthly spiderweb as the light sits in great unfractured pools in the still waters of the creek.
How many nights has she lain in this old bed and thought of the frost as the wild night birds called and the wind unhoused the ghosts that lived within her. She knows she’ll not sleep awhile now, not once memory takes her inexorably like a great tidal pull, down the ancient pathway to the creek.
Sweet, sweet water where her daughter, Imogen, named in deference to the Gods, had drowned herself in the summer of her life when the land was rich in produce and the cattle were fat and her cottage garden spawned such a wealth of excess that it had quite amazed her. She remembers that she had thought how strange it was that the old Gods could shine so gloriously on this barren land. Until she found Imogen and the curtain of nightmare fell over her life for what seemed an eternity and even now Imogen sits in her heart with a bruising weight she’ll not take lightly to her own grave.
Life’s a perverse old bitch she murmurs to the cat who ignores her with his placid wisdom and turns to have his ears rubbed purring like an old man snoring and cantankerous, yet apparently content with his lot.
Wish I was a cat she continues absently though I don’t fancy having nine lives, one’s enough, I couldn’t go through this lot again, it’s enough to make you fuck spiders.
A vivid memory of Imogen surprised on the brink of womanhood assails her, a shining girl whirling through the red dust with the chooks in her best white broderie anglaise frock and Verity shouting out that she’ll ruin the bloody thing before she’s even been to town in it.
Ophelia, my Ophelia, o lovely one, how did we fail you? she mutters despite herself and turns restlessly against the pain to find memory waiting in another crevice where Chen, her husband, stands whispering to the wicked brown horse that had defeated every man in her family, with his Queensland red kelpie sitting softly at his feet and her father never taking his eyes off this legendary Chinaman who could tame anything they brought to him.
Bloody foreign devilry he reckons quietly to himself but impressed and trying to hide it. His admiration did not survive her elopement with that bastard yellow peril and after he had cursed her with a quite bewildering array of pejoratives he had never, not once, in the next thirty years either spoken to her or even acknowledged her in the street when circumstances conspired that they should meet.
She had simply ceased to exist for him. Nor did he acknowledge her children, the thought of mixing all that pure white blood with a heathen would have curdled his stomach. How Verity had missed him, years later when he lay dying of the canker that twisted him into a thin gargoyle of his former self she had come to visit him in the hospital but the snooty bitch who ran the ward had tried to forbid her entry on the grounds it would have upset him. But even she had quailed before Verity’s fury, she would not now be denied, not by God himself, this last chance to see him, to talk, whatever.
But in that quiet room where death hovered so patiently words deserted her and she knew he had been waiting, had fought the pain for weeks so that he might stay the time to see her one last time when so many bitter years had passed, so much unsaid, so much anger. She remembers that the tears poured down her face and dripped onto his withered old claws and she laid her head on them.
Make a good passage, Dada, I love you she had whispered.
Bon Voyage he replied in a thin, almost unrecognisable, voice O Verity, beloved, how I missed you. And then smiling at her he died as the afternoon light spread across the common, he left her with all those words unsaid and unsayable.
Afterwards, of course, the old nurse had said that she’d practically murdered him and she should be called to account for her actions. Verity didn’t bother to defend herself, she’d lived on a farm outside this old vicious town, outside its contempt and its palpable hatred of her and her mixed marriage and her half breed children that were as wild as crows for so long that it hardly seemed to matter.
Chen had been her universe with his fabulous tales of the decaying splendour of the Great Celestial Empire, stories from his father’s province in Kwangtung, of the dragon river and the counting songs of the Wooden Fish while the children sat with their eyes reflecting the firelight and laughter flowed like honey and the world outside was exiled from their home. Occasionally he would speak of how his father was sold like a slave to the masters of Gold Mountain and lost his soul to it. He rarely spoke of his own youth and never mentioned the woman who had been his mother.
Chen with his impossibly alien eyes, his spirit wrapped in mystery and whom she had first seen in high summer when the light was spinning silver in the dead grasses of the treeless plains and her life trembled on the wind.
Fate shapes us all so the sage Ho-Tou said and we must all dance on the wheel of eternity. I would dance there with you. No man had ever said words like those to her, no man nor woman had ever come close to the secrets she cradled in her heart. Chen who had died from a bizarre tractor accident and left her so alone she had nearly gone mad. She suddenly remembers old Doc Jenko standing on her verandah one afternoon and telling her straight:
Verity you’ve got the constitution of an ox, grief can’t kill you. All you Pendergasts are the same, take a bloody pick axe and then some before you lot shuffle off the old mortal coil, so like it or lump it you’re in for a life sentence girl and you can do it easy or you can do it hard but either way you could spare a thought for these poor bloody kids.
So she gave him the entire speech from King Lear on the death of Cordelia, bellowing it out like an animal, before he threw up his hands and drove off in a great rage in his battered old car.
Verity knows she has not been an easy woman, stubborn and black-hearted when the mood took her and proud as sin, the same pride that kept her securely beyond the reach of the mealy-mouthed gossips of the town.
See how the mighty have fallen she whispers into the night, it has never ceased to amuse her that she had out-lived so many of them, the irony of it all. Somewhere she can almost hear her great-aunt’s half-senile cackle but wise, so wise, in the ways of life, and her broken, tinny voice.
You was always wild though many’s the time I took the twitch to ya backside but there was no taming ya, it’s what’s bred in the bone, girl, and Lord knows you got a power of devils. You watch your mad brothers, they reckon that Chinaman has bewitched ya with heathen love potions and they’re looking to shoot him, give ’em half a chance and they will, girl. You mark my words Verity, your poor mother died hard, so you take your slant-eyed lover and run like hell. These old mountains will kill us all soon enough.
Night crawls restlessly through the room, soon it will be the hour before dawn, the hour of the wolf. Her gaze shifts, noting again how the room seems to be falling in on itself and she lets herself drift back through time to when she first transformed it into an exotic love nest, like something out of The Arabian Nights, shifting panels of gossamer and her young limbs entwined with Chen’s, so close even skin could not divide them.
In this room she birthed all her children though old Doc Jenko complained bitterly that there was a perfectly good hospital not four miles away. Here she nursed Chen through his last agony, white-faced and stony cold with rage at him and his dying. Sometimes it seemed to her that it was a room in which all her dreams had been conceived and then they died, one after another, and after that they had gone wild and taken to living in the walls, furious like the rats raking their nests in the architraves, never satisfied.
She knows the geography of her mind very well and she repudiates this weakness that age has brought with it, how she loathes self-pity; she’ll die just as she lived, without compromise. Occasionally she has wondered what has kept her here all this time and yet she knows, as deep and old and unknowable as the cycles of the moon she is yoked to this land, to the texture of its soil, to the caprices of its climate, to the vast serenity of its night skies where the stars burn so far beyond her earthly tempests. Looking out again she welcomes the faint light of dawn coming and sits up in bed decisively ignoring her rattling breathing and the racing in her heart.
Well puss she says, willfully upsetting the cat it’s me bloody birthday and I mean to celebrate it, so you can shift your arse and go make me tea and I’ll have a spot of them Eggs Benedict with Melba toast. You could clean this pigsty while you’re at it because young Gabrielle’s due for her mercy mission today and we don’t want her wasting time with the old house, do we, bet she’s got you mince, ya great spoilt brute.
Almost despite herself she has come to enjoy the company of the young community nurse who has so much more gumption than her predecessors.
They had always been so easy to shock, she’d taunted and teased them mercilessly. They could never cope with her ribald, running commentary on their sex lives or her bewailing the fact that her own old hole was dry as a bunion and she was losing the memory of a damn good fuck but she wouldn’t mind one last go at it because it was a sovereign remedy for almost any ill. She’d never had time for do-gooders, they disgusted her.
Verity is only too well aware that she is a nuisance to their fancy new community health services and their pathetic ideas about geriatric medicine. One of her recent triumphs has been her successful intimidation of young Doc Jenko, not a patch on his father, whom she’d attacked with such vitriol that he was only too happy to leave her alone.
You reckon to murder me, do ya? Young cock of the walk, well you try it, you take me from this farm and I swear I’ll neck myself, so be it on your head. I’d not last a week in that mausoleum in town. Leave well enough alone, even your father knew that much, its only age, boy, one out of one people die. Now get ya great feet out of my garden and off my property. If I need ya, I’ll call ya, the rest is between the devil and me and none of your goddamn business. So piss off and find yourself a real emergency.
But it is time now to re-enter the present and leave the night to its shades. It is her birthday and she has been preparing for it for some months. It is over forty years since her vital, brown-skinned twin sons had left home to travel the rugged country of the Northern Territory rodeo circuit, there they had fallen in love with the wild free spaces of that place and made their fortune. For they had both inherited that gift of calming and then taming almost any creature brought to them, in this they carried on the legend of their father. Like Chen they seemed to contain a quality of serenity, a deep pool at the very centre of their beings. Verity had often wished she’d had some of it.
They’d both settled and married and provided her with a glorious tribe of grand-children and she envied them their gutsy wives, those endlessly competent women of that great northern expanse. Once she had been much like them but now it seems as if all her energy has gone to ground.
Peering at herself in the mirror she notes the slow fading of her eyes, the cataracts are encroaching; sometimes she feels as if she has let the land itself into her, that her eyes are full of clouds, the blue rushing through the sky and the wind is a constant pressure in her ears and her gnarled feet are like withered tree trunks. Shaking herself and with the same indefatigable spirit that has sustained her all the seasons of her life she gets up to prepare the surprise she has concocted for her rascal sons.
Hours later young Gabrielle arrives to find Verity, a vision splendid, perched in her old cane chair like an ancient and most exotic bird of paradise and is rendered speechless for a moment.
My God, Verity, you look astonishing.
I’d frighten the bloody angels, Gabrielle, but I promised them bastard sons of mine a formal bloody portrait of meself and they’re been plaguing me for years. So this year they’ll finally get it, since I’ve always been the Mata Hari of the high country I thought I’d tart meself up as her, just like Hedi Lamarr, always fancied her. Time’s a wasting girl, so lets git. We’re going to that young Peter’s Palace of Portraits for a sitting. Christ, I feel as uncomfortable as the friggin’ Queen on a Royal Tour.
Oh Verity what would I do without you!
Years and years later a young girl will sit in her sun-filled bedroom and once again pore over a startling portrait of her great-grandmother taken the day before she died. She is beguiled by the complicity in the woman’s smile and she can almost sense the secrets she somehow enfolds, it is a portrait of mystery and something else, something much less easy to define. Turning the picture over she traces the spidery, copperplate handwriting on the faded, brown backing of the photo and she repeat the words to herself like a mantra or an invocation:
There’s no closing date for the getting of wisdom. Remember you were born to dance on the wheel of eternity with joy so take risks, my darlings, and take care. Love Mum.
© Kate McNamara
Kate McNamara is a Canberra based poet, playwright and critical theorist. Her plays have been performed internationally. McNamara delivered the opening address to the Fourth International Conference of Women Playwrights in Galway (2001). She was awarded the H.C Coombs Fellowship at ANU (1991) and elected to the Emeritus Faculty. She won The Banjo Patterson Award for her short story Verity. Her published works include Leaves, The Rule of Zip (AGP) Praxis and The Void Zone (AGP). Her poetry, short fiction and critical theory has been published in a number of anthologies including There is No Mystery (ed. K Kituai, 1998), The Death Mook (ed. Dion Kagan, 2008) These Strange Outcrops(2020) and The Blue Nib (2020) She has also worked extensively as an editor and has only recently returned to her first great love, poetry. McNamara is currently working on The Burning Times.