by Annabel Smith
Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.
Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards.
‘Running Bear’ was published in Westerly 44.3, Spring 1999.
Jemma says she doesn’t like watering plants anymore because she worries that she hasn’t given each plant enough, or that she hasn’t given to them all equally.
And lately she has been finding insects flailing in the water every time she has a shower; daddy long-legs, beetles and crickets, clambering out of the plug hole as the water floods down, scrambling up the sides. She has started checking before she turns on the taps, scooping them up in a cup and tipping them out in a flower bed.
She used to love to paint sea creatures: octopus, crabs, jelly-fish in yellow and green and blue, capering in the wild red ocean of her imagination. In the last few months all her paintings have been self-portraits, in which she is a little girl in a striped dress with the triangular body of childhood drawings. Sometimes she is in a desert with a snarling crocodile, but usually she is alone. In all of these portraits she is in her favourite wig, the long, dark one with the thick fringe, and the feathers she always wears: one short for the here and now, the other one long, for eternity.
In the last picture she painted she holds a set of wings on the end of a string like a kite. They float above her, broad and curving, painted blue with silver stars; tethered to her but not yet a part of her.
She has painted angels before: their starry bodies soared across the envelopes of the letters she sent me in England. Great, fat envelopes stuffed with sheets of her excited abbreviations and made-up words, sloping down the pages, tipping off the lines. And there were letters she painted in primary colours on butcher paper which I had to spread out on the floor to read, giant script stretching my name and address across a whole envelope, stamps stuck haphazardly and a golden letter on shiny wrapping paper which arrived without a stamp.
I remember too, the months when no letters came, when she was too sick to hold a pen, or too angry to write the truth. 1 didn’t know that then. I was fooled by the photos she had sent in which she was without a wig, with millimetres of her own hair and her eyes as big and bright as a nocturnal animal. So I was unprepared for her last letter and the shock of her hard words. “I’m fucking scared of dying,” she wrote in smaller, neater writing than I’d seen before. She signed the letter “Running Bear.”
Jemma is in the room with the yellow door. Her heart is beating over one hundred and forty times a minute to keep up with the machine that pushes air in a tube through her nose and throat into her lungs.
She can’t rest between breaths the way I can. Her air sacs can’t hold the oxygen long enough for it to make its way through her body in her blood. She must gasp and gasp even as they tell her she will die today.
The sight of her heaving shoulders and her small, bald head locks my tongue. Even though I know I will never have the chance again, I cannot speak to her. I can only stroke her flopping hand, watch her clutch at her mask and have it pulled off just long enough for her to gasp for a drink to soothe her dry, sore throat. That place from which song and laughter came, has become just a passageway for air and water.
The next night and the night after that I dream I am back there sitting on that high bed beside her pale, dead legs. Her chest and shoulders are straining to haul air in and out. In the dream they take off her mask just as they did when I was really there, but this time she speaks to me, a stream of words in her chirruping voice. When I wake I cannot remember what she said and I cry to think I will never hear that voice again and because I am afraid already that I will forget how it sounded.
Jemma is behind a small, white cloud: the only cloud in the sky on this hot blue day. I imagine her hovering above us as we gather on the grass: her family, her friends. We are clutching balloons, dressed to please her in turquoise, yellow, orange, green and pink. In my sweating hand I hold the ribbon of a red balloon. It bobs above me as I take my turn to stand in front of that still crowd and struggle to capture in words how Jemma moved me in her bright, twisting way. I open my hand, let go of my ribbon. I send my balloon over to that cloud where she is hiding; a little packet of air to fill up her lungs. The others begin to let go too, all the balloons are floating over to her. But we are too late. She can’t breathe that air now. I want to run after my balloon, catch the ribbon, hold on a little longer. But it’s high above me already, climbing with the other balloons out of our sight. And when the little cloud drifts away we are left standing, empty-handed beneath a blank sky.
In the hall at Jemma’s house I pass a photo of her with her brother and sister and their dad in a stripey jumper. Jemma is tiny, maybe two years old, curly-haired and beaming in a red, quilted jacket: the youngest, the smallest, she should have been the last to die.
I lie in the spare room remembering the last time I slept here. Jemma was on the other side of the wall and I lay and listened to her coughing. Now there is only her bag hanging on the back of the door, the patchwork bag I made for her nineteenth birthday with a shiny square of satin from a ball dress, beige corduroy from worn-out pants; pieces of my life sewn together for her. There is still a knot in the strap where she made it just the right length. She will never use it now, never fill it with her thick, squeaky textas, her sketchbooks of squiggly notes and pictures, those cough lollies that she took everywhere.
I look for her sometimes in the low clouds, remembering when she dressed up as the sky, her bright face the sun. She was wrapped in blue, her dress painted with long clouds, her blonde hair rays of light. Holding hands we danced round and round on the patio. We spun beneath the sparklers we had suspended there and lit all at once. We were spiralling in a shower of sparks, Jemma turning like a summer tornado. Dizzy, we tripped and broke a flowerpot, lay laughing on the ground.
I look for her in the long grass beside the river at Toodyay where we liked to sit, but she has slipped downstream, under the bridge, beyond me.
I am always looking, always thinking she is there behind the cloud, in the grass, under the tree. But when I roll the stone away the cave is empty. For she is Running Bear with a long feather in her dark hair and blue starry wings. She is Running Bear and I cannot catch her.
The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.
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