It would have been easy not to notice him. He was just a small thing. Partially covered with dried bracken and dirt, he looked like one more item in the museum of strange trash that appeared as the water subsided. Unwanted things dumped in the night, as though people were working to fill this great absence at the centre of town. The fog was thick after midnight. It hid the moonset and hung low even as dawn threatened. The streetlamps were still on, little yellow haloes in the fog. There were no cars on the road. No birds yet. The cicadas had not chirped since the last rainfall. He was silent too, though he'd screamed at first. Screamed as hard as he could, until he screamed himself out and the soft skin on his lips purpled and blued. His hands, scrunched into fists, gripped broken sticks and leaves so tight they cut the soft flesh. Maybe he was trying to summon the earth, the sky, his kingdom. Maybe he understood how helpless he was, though more likely he did not. More likely he felt the desperation, the morning chill, the dense dark uncaring sky as one crushing force on his weak body. A crust formed at his nostrils. The skin around each knuckle paled as the sky dropped to the earth, the fog dampening the bank, leaving beads of dirty moisture on his puckered mouth, his eyelids. Soon, the sun rose to illuminate the abandoned shopping trolleys, the empty beer cans and silver wine bladders, the cartoon lions on his clothes. A soft breeze agitated the tattered spike rush. A bleached chip packet blew across the path. The birds came out. Dawn broke brightly, the fog burned fast. But still, it would have been easy not to notice him there: a small thing, alone, in the reeds by the lake.



From her salmon-coloured entertainer's patio, Emma stared out across the dried lake bed. A group of tiny figures in bright lycra bounced along the circular track. Perhaps unconsciously, they'd assumed a balletic formation: the woman in the centre pushed a stroller, her four friends making an arrow tip. Their arms bent and hinged at the shoulders as they pumped the air emphatically.[JC3]  The mother––Emma presumed the stroller lady took that title––had one of those aerobic attachments on her pram which allowed her to pump her arms too, and the whole group trod in step, a bright satellite circumnavigating the dusty terrain.

            It was already mid-autumn but summer had arrested the town and showed no sign of letting go. The lake, or what used to be the lake, stretched out from the road in acres of scrubby marsh. The circle of water, dwindling since last spring, was now little more than a slick disc on the horizon. The heat made the flat pan of earth shimmery, unreal. The air had texture; heavy and cloudlike, as though a person could walk out across the dry bed and lose themselves in an endless dense white nothing. 

            Common wisdom insisted weather was temporary, subject to the wills of some petulant other. The phrase 'pray for rain' came into Shore Haven's secular lexicon, particularly on those muggy summer days which threatened to leak into something cleansing and decisive but became pink and placid by evening.

            Men walked around the Westlake Estates in flip-flops with open beer cans, tossing crushed empties into piles beside the overflowing bins. People with air conditioners left them on all night and retreated into an artificial climate, rendering the drought as a theoretical space to pass through but never inhabit. Even last winter––which had been brutally cold, with winds that struck out across the shrinking lake––had yielded only sleet that melted into long, thin puddles for the odd duck hold-out to shake their wings in. Never enough to make the lake lake again. The lake was field. No, too verdant-sounding. The lake was paddock.

            All the best houses in town were around the lake, and this perhaps, was the only truly funny joke of the drought, at least to those in Westlake, though Emma could read the punchline from 127 Shoreline Drive. Her own conspicuous five-bedder featured a pool, a two-car garage, an entertainer’s patio, reverse living, and sweeping views of a paddock. Her polished windows and glass balcony shone aggressively, concentrating the heat of the sun and withering her extensive front lawn. Once the category-four water restrictions were enforced, Emma watched the ladies of the neighbouring houses hand-water the flower beds in the scant evening hours when such activity was sanctioned but the gardeners had all gone home. Her own garden was mostly dead, planted with forgotten scooters and balls instead of roses.

            The Lakeshore businesses were still open. The coffee cart by the Olympic Commemoration Rings advertised iced lattes in big blue letters on their specials board. The newsstands and kiosks that lined the Prime Minister's Promenade traded in refreshments and grim aphorisms with those who still walked around the lake, a recreational exercise infused with an air of civic pride, even now.

            Emma squinted to see the faces of the walkers. She might have gone to school with them. The tall one could be Lisa. But it could equally be any horsey, enthusiastic Shore Haven woman. She recognised them as a type if not individuals. They were robust, ex-rowers and equestrians with unused law degrees and new Audis. This was her type, too, sort of. By marriage. It was not a type she fitted naturally. You could not ignore her smallness; petite with delicate features, thin, pale limbs and fine auburn hair. Too small to take up oars and sweep the perimeter of the lake back when it was full and glittering. In school, she'd become a coxswain because it seemed like the lowest-impact option in the compulsory sports program that showcased everyone else's strength, mateship, co-ordination. Her first season with the 12ths ended prematurely though, partly because of the gruelling training (why did she need to run and lift if she was just sitting there?) and partly because her voice got lost in the wind and the slapping of paddles against water. High school was one long season of recusal. She was recused from hockey after her thin ankle popped mid stride, and recused from the outward bound program after almost passing out under the weight of her pack. Everyone at Shore Haven Grammar School seemed to have a heft and gravity to them that she lacked.

            Still, it could be her, walking the lake. Walking was democratic, low impact. And despite a lifelong paucity in team spirit (teamwork had been the answer to the training question, it turned out) she was now wearing the uniform. Her outfit was technologically advanced, ready for any feat of physical accomplishment. Her ponytail was loose, she could feel, but a few tugs and it would bob like theirs. She wore bright trainers with purple soles like bruises on tropical fruit. Her own Audi was parked in front of the house. She had it all.

            Then why did she felt like an envoy staring out over an alien terrain rather than a woman encountering her peers in her neighbourhood? This feeling of being indistinguishable but totally other was familiar to her. It came with an insistent question, an unanswerable question: how am I different?

            One of the walkers turned and Emma imagined for a second that she was watching a projection of herself in another time. In this projection, she did not know which version of herself was watching and which was watched, like the effect of staring too long at a very clean mirror when sleep-deprived or drunk. The woman brought a hand up to shield her eyes, and Emma had the absurd impulse to duck. Then she saw that the woman was looking at her phone, and the illusion changed, was quickly laced with an edge of paranoia. What was she taking a picture of?

            Closer to the road an ibis pecked violently at a deflated inner tube. Most of the birds where gone­­––the ducks, the black swans, the coots and cormorants––but the gulls, the little miner birds, and the ibis remained. Avian opportunists. Birds you would find anywhere. After the end of the world there would be an ibis to peck at the remains.

            Emma shook her head and paced a little. Morbid, and it was only nine a.m. This should be action hour. The time the day takes shape. But she'd felt less alive as the morning progressed and the fog lifted. In the tiny hours, she had a chance: there was a cool promise to the day. She knew from the clock on her phone that last night's sleep had been scavenged in ninety-minute intervals and declared dead by four. Every time she lifted the glowing rectangle of her phone, Robbie's tiny, red-stained face beamed mockingly at her from the dark. After her shower at five, she dressed in the lycra uniform not out of enthusiasm for exercise but because it was a spill-proof material. Its shiny surface always clean and accommodating. Already this morning she had watched two white pools dissolve into its surface, leaving only vague, salty rings. By nine, morning was shot through, burned up with the fog into a stark, hard reality. She considered turning the wall clock around and then remembered, with a deep sense of defeat, that there were clocks on the microwave, the Blu-ray, the laptop, Clem's iPad, the morning TV show.

            The ibis moved over behind a row of bins. The women were further along the track now. These were the small signs that the day was progressing despite her. Emma thought about lying down but didn't move. Her body was numb. If she fell back, she mused, she would crack her head on the polished concrete. If she fell forward she would slice it on the glass balcony railing. A wasp landed on her wrist and she watched it with interest, curious to see if it would bite. It flew away. She kept standing there, staring out at the parched lake as the women became bright dots moving toward the shimmer.

            On the baby monitor, Robbie started to wail and Emma's body came alive immediately. Her breasts began to tingle and burn. As usual her thoughts were slower to catch up as usual. She was already walking back into the house through the huge glass sliding door before she had the conscious thought to feed the baby. Inside, her family waited for her as if paused. A four-year-old girl on the floor with her toys, a toddler in a playpen, still as if posing for a photograph. How long had she been on the balcony? What had she gone out for? The tinny cry in the monitor merged with the loud insistent sound of real crying. And yet she stared for a while longer at the video image of the infant, trapped in the frame, unaware if anyone had heard him, if anyone was coming for him. Robbie's cry was demanding and nasal, totally different to Clem's shrill pitch or Arthur's screams. It made her feel remiss, chastened, a cry pitched like an important man calling for service to a daydreaming waitress. She went to the bassinette, picked him up, bounced a little. Without looking at him directly she freed one breast and surrendered it. He latched on eagerly and began to feed, grunting.

            'Mum, Robbie is hungry because it's snack time,' Clem said, looking up from her colouring book.

            'Robbie's always hungry,' Emma said, then caught herself. 'What would you like for snack, Clem?'

            'I would like toast with honey and banana, thank you. I think that's what Arthur would like also.' Clem went back to her colouring book.

            Emma looked over at Arthur, harbouring some ridiculous hope that he would contradict her and choose some scentless, clean snack that came straight out of a packet. The kind of food that Patricia threw out whenever she came over to help.

            Emma opened the fridge and began taking out the ingredients. The cold, congealed honey, streaked with butter and crumbs like flies caught in amber. The vitamin-enriched soft white bread. She hid the dark side of the banana from Clem, who only liked them when they were pale yellow. The smell made her vaguely nauseous but at least her daughter had not asked for pancakes. She had no resistance today. She'd do anything she was told because there was no arguing why or why not. Could they tell when she was like this? No, or Clem would have asked for pancakes.

            The whiteboard calendar on the fridge had not been updated in months. Its hurried scrawls reminded Emma of an afternoon with Patricia, three weeks previous, which had notionally been about giving her time to rest, blowdry her hair, maybe go out for a while but which turned predictably into an extended lecture, delivered by her mother-in-law, and ill-received by Emma, who snapped, setting off her kids and sending the house into a chaotic spiral of screams and tears, all of which demonstrated the point of Patricia's lecture. As Emma closed the fridge door she removed the afternoon with the absorbent fibres of her shirt. There was a dirty smear left on the grey fabric but it would be gone soon. This small act felt like the biggest accomplishment of the day so far and she wished that she could run a cloth over more of the clutter in her day, run a cloth over the constant stream of negative slogans running through her mind and leave a fresh, non-stick surface. Clean enough to eat off.

            A breakfast show was on with no sound, and she watched a panel of TV people discuss a grave topic, nodding seriously. The studio was glassed in on all sides, rendering it semi-public, the presenters backgrounded by a city street. Passers-by made faces and nudged each other. People in suits strode purposefully across the screen. Emma liked the show for this very reason. She liked to look through the show and see its contents leaked into the world beyond. Was this a strategy? It was compelling, disquieting. Without the sound off, it felt satirical or arty. Absurd fragments of news scrolled across the bottom of the scene. Before the ad break, the anchor woman looked straight into the camera, smiling sincerely, and Emma felt an echo of her hallucination on the lake. Behind the anchor woman, an anonymous little girl waved, awestruck, as her mother pointed into the studio. Clem, seeing something in the girl that resonated, lifted her hand and waved back.  

            The toast popped. Emma moved Robbie over, dressed the bread, put one slice on a plate for her daughter and cut another into pieces, dropping them in a bowl. Her middle child, Arthur, was dazed this morning, interested mainly in flicking methodically through a book of dinosaurs. She often sat and monitored him when he was in a trance like this. She monitored him and thought about all the things that his gestures and movements might mean. She monitored him to see any minute change that might suggest something. Anything she should mark in his journal. She did this until she had to remind herself that she was looking at someone she loved.

            She bent down to place the bowl beside him on the floor but as she did Robbie reached out and snatched at the book, ripping a page. Arthur looked up, shocked.

            'Oh, no!' Emma yelled, despite herself, jolting Robbie and causing him to scream in annoyance. The scream was loud and intense but nothing compared to the reply from his brother. Arthur's cry came from the very heart of him and filled the glass room. He smacked his palm over and over on the ground and Emma knelt, balancing the baby as she tried to soothe the older child, his face scrunched and purpling. Shhhhhhh, she cooed, shhhhhhh, it's ok, it's ok, it's ok. She smoothed the book. Turned the page to hide the tear.

            Suddenly the room was filled with obnoxiously loud advertising music. Something insistent about insurance, with a terrible keyboard melody.

            'No, Clem! Turn it off!' Emma yelled, and then ducked her head into her shoulder as if she could muffle the sound there.

            It was too late. Arthur screamed louder now, an unbroken, aching, escalating sound. Guttural and pained, terribly unchildlike.

            'It's okay, Arthur.' Emma rubbed the screaming child's back. Got as close to him as she could with Robbie still in her arms. 'It's okay. Clem, turn it off.' She said this last in a hiss.

            Clem had turned up the television in protest against her brothers. She had made her point and now the TV snapped to black. Robbie went back to feeding, grumbling occasionally. Emma kept rubbing Arthur's back as he heaved and rocked and eventually became quiet and intense again. She could hear, when the crying stopped, the deliberate sound of Clem's pencil on the grainy paper and her unmistakably pointed sigh.

            Emma moved her body into a more sustainable pose, her back against the bottom of the couch, a child in each arm. Robbie, nestled close to her now, still had the torn piece of the dinosaur book in his hand, clutched tightly like an urgent missive.

            The huge picture windows had a tint on them so that their lives were not playacted to the outside world at any time but twilight, when the inside and outside lights were balanced, and the scrim lifted. Beyond the windows the sky was still and the sun blazed.

            Suddenly, Emma noticed movement over on the left of the terrace. A darkness on the periphery. Pinned under the weight of the children she stared at the grey and black shape, a sick anxiety rising within her. It took a moment to recognise the ibis––real or the imprint of a memory, she couldn't be sure. Its wings hung loose and crooked at the side of its body. Its long, black neck became head became a black beak parted around something brown and malformed. It stood erect before its own reflection, its white chest smeared a dirty grey, rising and falling, the steam from its breath fogging the glass. Emma closed her eyes and opened them again. The ibis remained. Its black beady eyes seemed to stare straight into the room. Arthur made a sound and pointed, rocking, his concentration intensifying. She looked down at him and registered the look on his small face. He was no longer crying but his breath came in jagged heaves. He was scared.

            There was a thump outside, and Emma turned toward it with a start. The ibis had dropped its cargo and spread its wings, bones showing through the ragged feathers.

            Emma held her breath. Would it fly? It stood there transfixed by its reflection, all filthy feathers and bones, the curling beak like something painted and hanging in the Prado; behind it, the paddock of dry grass and lonely boatsheds, the walkers now reminding her of marionettes, inhuman and terrible. Emma closed her eyes and held Arthur's hand tightly. She willed the bird to leave but then the tapping started. She opened her eyes and watched with horror as the ibis pecked at the glass. The tapping was rythmic, insistent. Tap tap tap tap tap. The black eyes gleamed. Arthur shrieked, a piercing scream as though the pecking breached his skin and hit the bone. She clung to him. Shhhhhhhhh, she said, her son's scream drowning out the pecking, and when she looked back, the balcony was quiet.

            She expected cracks but the glass was clean and flat, reflecting the heat of the summer sun. The baby was looking toward the window, his face curious and alive. He gurgled and clapped his hands, the torn paper dropping to the floor like confetti at a parade.

            'Mum,' said Clem, her back to the scene, using her Patricia voice to deliver a lesson from the morning. 'I think Arthur needs to learn to share his toys.'




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