Alyson Miller teaches literary studies at Deakin University, Geelong. Her poetry and
short stories have appeared in both national and international publications, along with
a book of literary criticism, Haunted by Words: Scandalous Texts (Peter Lang, 2013). Her
collection of prose poems, Dream Animals, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2014.
Stretching out both arms and legs, she touches the hot tin walls of the outhouse, a pre-war keepsake against some Luddite fear of plumbing. Sweat moustaches her upper lip, plasters hair to her nape like an oil slick, flat, wet. Her clothes cling like unwanted kisses; she peels down her knickers and lifts her skirts, feels the sticky contact of the plastic toilet seat and thinks of the other bodies here before her, sweltering. She is doll heavy, a dead weight hunched over, scanning the floor for insects and torn pieces of newspaper, looking for a word fragment, something with an atom of meaning. In the corner, there is a family of mice, sweet and musty, refugees of the cat, buried in an abandoned pile of magazines. She nudges the nest with a cautious toe, catching a glimpse of the jellybean pink babies, eyes mute to the world. Their neophyte skin is translucent, grotesque—for a moment, she must swallow the urge to break open their tiny skulls. The bullet noise of rain chases out the thought, the rich odor of petrichor mingling with the smell of dirt and ammonia. She places her fingertips against the metal, feels the shock burst of cool air from beneath the door against her legs. A thin line of rainwater trickles onto the magazines; the mice dig deep, holing their way through the paper as though racing through to the centre of the earth.
It's humid, the air thick and drinkable, a wet moustache lining her upper lip. She searches for the sliver space between two back molars, finding the sharpness of the bone edge, and levering. A wince of pain but it's satisfying and she pushes harder, wedging the meatiness of her tongue under the tooth, feeling the ridges of its underbody. There's a small crack as some sinew or nerve snaps, the rip of gum, and her mouth fills with the taste of metal and salt. She spits it out, a calcium pearl on the dresser, then drops it into a bottle wrapped with instruction: Take Me. Later, as she waits for sleep, she watches a shadow in the doorframe from under thin cotton sheets, waiting for it to move towards the tiny piece of her body that is no longer needed. Her breath is hot and alive against the fabric, and in the moments before she gives into the underwater shapes of dream, she sees a smile without a face. Morning brings an empty doorway; a missing bottle; and a dark stain of blood on the pillow.
A school game, lists clutched in tiny fists, fat and sweaty from the excitement. Find the items and tick them off, running fast to be first, elbows out to clip competitors glimpsed in the periphery—small bones bruise so easily. The sky is low and heavy with heat, the air combustible; a match trigger away from explosion. She doesn't want to play—the screams of her classmates like the war cry of gulls swooping against licorice thick tarmac for the husk of a dry, salty chip. She finds a tree, splays under the foliage; from a distance she looks broken, her marionette limbs split at strange, unearthly angles. The dense canopy entombs her small body, the light filtered through the leaves freckling her skin with delicate lace patterns; she is made alien and new. In the branches, she looks for cat eyes and striped tails but hears only an echo of laughter, tinny and syncopated from across the yard. Her fingers scoop into the dusty ground, combing for gum nut beads and twig shards. As the dirt grows damp, she touches on something sharp, and her excavation grows slow and careful, pulling the earth away from the emerging shape like searching a wound for a splinter. And then there it is, the milk white skeleton of an echidna, trapped as though still nuzzling for termites. She caresses the bones—the maraca shaped skull, needle-thin ribs, the meaty weight of the forearms—and softly blows into the sockets where there used to be eyes. Unnerved by the vacuum stare, she covers the head with her hand, singing a lullaby about the sea as she buries it back down to sleep.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Their parents blamed a toxic conspiracy, something about chemicals creeping through the bedrock like a stain. Claimed it must be under the football field, poisons triggered by cheerleaders and runners punctuating the earth with the regularity of typewriters and bird song. Experts held the mystery as far away as continents, spitting out scripts for antibiotics and hysteria like seeds and broken teeth. On the television, the girls jerked as though possessed, necks and faces pulled hard into alien angles, voices annexed by unreal things. And the symptoms spread like a haunting, an enigma of muscle and some cerebral ghost that eluded X-rays and journalists and psychiatry. The small town, nervous of the water table and porous quarry rocks, shuttered down as tight as an eyelid. And the girls, locked in their rooms and skins, searched night skies and the patterns of leaf falls for some hint of return.
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