from the editor's desk

63.1

‘Star Atlas’ by Alison Martin

Each year we run our October Subscription Drive in a bid to entice new readers and old friends with a subscription to Westerly.

For over 60 years, Westerly Magazine has been supporting emerging and established writers from Western Australia and around the world. We’re proud of all the writers that we’ve helped to support, but we couldn’t do it without you! We depend on our subscribers to continue publishing and supporting great writing talent. Subscription is our life-blood, and the community of readers around the magazine is our reason for existing.

As part of the drive, we’re excited to to publish snippets of work from our latest issue, Issue 63.1, as a sneak peek of the fantastic contemporary literature we publish in Westerly and as a taster of what subscription to Westerly has to offer. In honour of Fiction Lovers’ Week this week, we’re pleased to publish short fiction by Alison Martin, ‘Star Atlas’.

Running between October 1st & October 31st, we have some great subscription offers and competitions to thank our readers for their ongoing support! For $5 off your subscription or renewal, enter the code OCTSUB18 at checkout! And anyone who subscribes between the 1st-7th goes in the draw to win a great fiction prize pack! For the other week’s prizes, see the post in our blog.


Star Atlas

Alison Martin

 

Morning sun refracted through the stained-glass windows, and rivers of dust poured down the shafts of light, spotlighting members of the congregation. Liv peeled the enamel off the rust-coloured pew in front of her and rolled it into tiny glossy beads between her fingertips. She hated this part. Having to shake hands with strangers in church, when the mass dictated they offer each other the Sign of Peace. She looked around and felt the familiar clamminess in her palms; the recoiling clench of her stomach. This part of church had gotten so much harder since she started high school this year, and even more difficult since that dark morning just weeks ago—when their dog Tilly had run in front of a car and her baby brother was born far too early. When her mother stopped speaking and everything went quiet.

Liv pulled her dark braid from the back of her neck and snaked it forward so it lay over her collarbone and she could run it through her fists, one after the other. Miss Jackson, the school counsellor, suggested that whenever Liv started to feel overwhelmed, she should take deep breaths and think about something that relaxed her. Watching her breath disperse into the suspended dust, she imagined the particles as new planets being born and arranging themselves into fresh, uncharted galaxies. She thought about her Star Atlas, a notebook she filled with everything she learnt about space, decorated with cut-out photos from Astronomy Magazine. Elaborate title pages announced each section, exploring various astronomical phenomena and facts: Celestial Cartography! Saturn’s Polar Vortex! Supernova Explosions!

Dylan Durante was sitting in the pew in front but he was far enough away that she didn’t need to worry about giving him the Sign of Peace. Four people stood between them, and she conjured the four heads as planets protecting her from having to shake his hand: Mars, a glowing ember, Jupiter with its outer layer coloured like sedimentary rock, Saturn a spinning top, and the blue marbled orb of Uranus.

Her older brother, Hunter, would never struggle with the Sign of Peace. He would probably keep giving the Sign of Peace all day, every day if he had to. Well, maybe not anymore, not since Tilly had died and Hunter’s face had filled with shadows and become all lopsided and Picasso-like.

Let us offer each other the Sign of Peace, Father Peter said.

Peace be with you, Dylan Durante said, swooping around from the pew in front, telescoping his arm and face towards her, somehow reaching his hand to hers across the solar system of church matter between them.

FOUR PLANETS! Liv screamed inside. Four planets between us! Dylan Durante should have been well and truly out of her peace-giving atmosphere. The surprise of having his perfectly formed face in front of hers triggered a flash of goosebumps up her neck. She should have been thinking about this just in case. Preparing herself for the required skinto-skin contact and, even worse, the interminable eye interaction. Her fingers sparked and charged like electrical rods, then crumbled feebly into her palms.

Saturn. She tried to summon a mental image of her number one favourite planet—its Earth-sized cyclones, infinitely spinning to its north. Astronomy made sense to her, the way everything related to something else, held together in magnetised systems of planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. Constant movement, perpetual orbits. Though she did feel weird, thinking about astronomy in church—where was God in all that?

Dylan Durante went to the all-boys school around the corner from her all-girls school and now they only saw each other when she failed to avoid him on Sundays at church. And to encounter him during this, the worst part of the mass! Excruciating. And today of all days—when her father had dragged her and Hunter here, and her mother had stayed home in her darkened bedroom. Liv hated when the mass veered off script, when she couldn’t burrow down into its familiar sacred rituals of hymns and refrains.

Peace be with you, Liv, Dylan Durante said again, this time with an elegant laugh: just a small and fast exhalation of air. His face was smooth shaped rock, broken apart by glittering green eyes that shuttered slow and deliberate. Pulling her in and pressing her back out with each blink.

Peace, Liv said, and the sound squawked loud and ragged into his face. She thrust her crumpled hand towards his and stared at it, willing her fingers to unfurl.

Liv’s a strange girl, she knew he was thinking. He weaved his fingertips underneath her knuckles, prying her clammy hand open and exposing his palm to hers. His lips cracked apart and she was confronted by perfect teeth, lined up side by side like white fence palings. She was struck all over with a smooth stony sweat. Heat flared up her neck and set her cheeks on fire.

Nice to see you, Liv, he said, as if injecting conversation into the calamitous minefield of the giving of Peace was the most natural thing in the world. A low murmur rose around them as other churchgoers exchanged greetings. Liv could not understand people like Dylan Durante. It was all she could do to remember how to say peace be with you at the same time as holding eye contact and smiling and making sure she exchanged Signs of Peace with everyone she was meant to, while also not falling over. Yet Dylan was able to begin and end conversations, to talk and smile and shake hands, all the while throwing his glittering gaze over strangers and school friends alike, reaching out his cool dry palms and bestowing eye contact on anyone whose face turned to his. His face unlocked from hers and glided away to the other side of the aisle where he continued to spread peace gracefully. Liv smelt the musty air and concentrated on breathing long and slow, watching the planets cluster and collide, forcing each other into new orbits.

Back home, Liv folded herself into her dark place—the back of her built-in wardrobe—her lanky, pale legs collapsed underneath her amid a pile of old sneakers and brown leather school shoes. The boundaries of her body blurred and warped. She was at the threshold of that lightless galaxy, the edge that Tilly had breached when she ran away and in front of that car, and the same liminal space that her baby brother Matthew had strayed into and become lost.

Liv let herself think of him.

Born three months too soon. Too small to survive. Those days after his birth and before his death were the darkest—their father had taken them to the hospital where her mother was bent, crooked, over the clear box full of tubes. The smell of disinfectant. Somewhere amongst the jumble of plastic was Matthew. Tiny rivers of blood vessels were visible underneath his wrinkled, purple skin. Arms like little twigs. This was the boy who had kicked from within her mother’s belly. Pressed his foot into her hand.

Liv didn’t usually let herself remember these things. A cavernous darkness overcame her now and she felt herself fall further into a space without edges. The blaring absence of sound pressed into her like white noise; like the pressure on her ears at the bottom of the swimming pool. What would happen when she too breached that border and strayed into that place: what would happen if everyone she knew wandered in; what would be left of them here, out in the light? What if all the memories that she featured in were caught up in that dark galaxy—would there remain any traces of her on Earth? Is that where her mother’s voice had gone, in search of lost souls? Her father said Tilly had gone away to be with her little brother, to keep him safe. But it was hard to imagine how a dog and a baby boy could exist together in all that vast blackness—would their edges meld together, or would they remain their own distinct planets, one orbiting around the other?

Hunter’s voice trailed like a lowering rope into her galaxy, and she grasped hold of it to haul herself out.

We’re going now, he said.

Hunter was loud and soft all at once, bursting out of his skin with something strange, as if his insides were mismatched with his outsides. Cavities had opened in his face, black holes where his eyes had been. Standing in the doorframe, he looked like that Picasso painting of a woman’s face that their mother had blu-tacked to the back of the toilet door. The face that you can see from all directions simultaneously. Liv wondered what his hands felt like, outside the dusty shadows of the church. She didn’t like touching people and she hadn’t touched Hunter in years, except for in church, when it was only for those few moments when they shook hands during the giving of Peace. Hunter was the only one that Liv thought really needed the Sign of Peace, and perhaps also her mother, though her mother would have to re-emerge from under the doona first. Liv started thinking about that empty page in her Star Atlas, the one that came after the title page she had been illustrating since that dark morning: The Astronomy of Grief.

Hunter was already on his way out the door.

It was time to bury Tilly.

 

On the outside Tilly hadn’t looked so bad. The car hit her smack against her side, just a few scratches and patches of blood. Her gold belly looked all blown up and wrong, full of something unseen that was killing her. Liv overheard her father on the phone later, saying something about Tilly and internal bleeding, and she knew that meant something was busted up inside and the blood just kept coming. Now Tilly had been cremated, and Liv worried that might be against the Bible, but then again maybe that clause didn’t apply to dogs. She wondered about her baby brother. She had been looking forward to being older than someone.

Up on the hill above the crescent, through the tall dry yellow grasses and just beyond the crowds of scribbly gum, that’s where they decided to leave Tilly. The four of them walked together: her parents, Hunter and Liv; her father carrying a strange little brown jar he said was Tilly. The angular shape of her mother was almost alien among them—it was the first time she had left her bedroom since they lost Matthew.

It was already late afternoon and the summer heat was fading. Liv hated this part of the day because she could only take a few breaths before it changed into something else. It made her think of the stars that were dead before their light reached the Earth. The loss of it pressed into her chest.

Just like Liv knew it would, the light started hitting the scribbly gums and throwing orange and pink and yellow, and the leaves curved and cupped the colours and suddenly the whole crowd of gums flared with so much beauty she wanted to cry.

For her birthday this year, her parents had bought her a telescope and it was like a portal to another dimension. She breathed as long and slow as she could and thought about the stars she could see though its eyepiece. Somewhere way up there, those tiny blazes were still alive, she wanted to believe. She imagined Tilly at the end of a telescope—out past the scribbly gums, gilded in the last glow of the day, panting and scrabbling around in the tall grasses. Snapping at flies and barking at the blaring hot sky, she’d be looking for a good throwing stick, her wide wet mouth charting the lingering scent of some other dog. Soon she’d come back, dragging half a branch out of the corner of her jaw, her face cockeyed and wonky under the weight of it.

 

Hunter’s face was like the bottom of her father’s coffee mug, all lumpy and damp from crying. Her father was saying something about Tilly, about how she always loved this place, and now she could be here forever, and they could all feel okay about that. Liv had never heard her father’s voice like that, spiky and misshapen. She kept herself busy by taking brain photos of the flared-up scribbly gums. It made her feel less sad about the moment they would drop into darkness.

Her father had brought a shovel and they all took turns digging the hole, even her mother. Liv hadn’t seen her mother do much with her arms or legs in a while, not since before baby Matthew was born, when he was still in her belly and she was full of his life and hers. Come, quick, Liv! She would say, taking Liv’s hand and pressing it into her belly. Baby Matthew would push out with his foot, and for a few moments the three of them would be joined, Liv and her mother locked in each other’s gaze, faces bright with awe. It was weird seeing her mother now, heaving herself against the shovel, lifting up chunks of the ground. Stiff edges and jerky movements, as if animated by a puppeteer. Eventually it was done, and her father put Tilly in the ground and covered her up, and they all stood back and looked at the dirt.

Liv had read Bible stories about Jesus dying and how people responded. But she didn’t remember anything about galaxies of darkness or the way the silence screams when the sun starts dwindling low, or how hard it is to reach out to someone across a solar system of church dust.

They left the scribbly gums, Hunter striding up ahead behind their father, then Liv, then their mother trailing slowly behind. The gold wattle blooms held the last fragments of sunlight, so Liv fixed her eyes on those to keep from seeing the shadows rushing into Hunter’s wake, his blond head like a muted lamp hovering above. The long grasses were beginning to shiver as the evening wind picked up, the soft yellow fronds teasing the backs of Liv’s knees.

Liv, go and hold your brother’s hand.

Liv was surprised at her mother’s voice, suddenly close in her ear. Forceful yet weightless, like a hot air balloon untethered from the cable webbing securing it to the ground.

Liv, I wish you’d go. For me. Please, hold your brother’s hand.

But Liv couldn’t think how to hold Hunter’s hand. She only ever touched him when they exchanged Peace in church, and even then it was hard.

Liv, go. Can’t you see how sad he is. Go.

And with that last go, her mother gave a little push against Liv’s shoulderblades, causing her to stumble forward. Liv let her left hand glide swift and smooth into Hunter’s right hand. He turned towards her and she felt her face drawn towards his. For a moment, she saw him from all directions at once. His hand was warm and familiar: she felt every pore, every crevice. Their palms slipped and locked together, realigning with each step. It was a downhill walk home and Liv felt the momentum of the incline softening their spines, pressing them forward.

The night gathered thickly around the four of them, their father up ahead, the point of a star, Hunter and Liv holding hands to form the flaming core of it. The sound of her mother’s footfalls filled the space behind them and Liv felt as if she could lie back into that deep dark crunching, float down and then let it lift her up, chest rising to the sky, toes pointing downward like a ballerina, like one of those paintings of Mary ascending to heaven.


Alison Martin is an aid worker and writer, most recently based in Jerusalem and South Sudan. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Guardian, Huffington Post, Seizure and Lost Boy & other stories.

To see more work like this as it comes out, make the most of our Subscription Drive and subscribe to Westerly today! All new subscribers over the next month will go in the running to receive a book or poetry bundle. This week’s book bundle, valued at over $150, is for the fiction lovers and includes a copy of Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Stories. Use the code OCTSUB18 at check out for our Drive discount and for your chance to win! Don’t miss out!

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