FICTION: Hollow Bones by Alys Jackson

Jen rests her weight into the wall. There are too many people crammed into the streets around her, boxes and crates exploding their contents across the hard-packed earth, life hanging in colourful swatches and a bare-foot transience.

Too much of everything, she thinks, the market dip-dyed in kitsch gifts and tropical fruit. The woman to her left is bent over baskets packed with pungent strips of dried fish, and a selection of flame-roasted bats. She wonders what her daughter had found so appealing. The kampongs of Jakarta were a world away from Sydney but then Laura had loved everything, had lived life to the full.

Jen’s sister appears, Georgie’s head hidden beneath a gauzy summer hat, the bright yellow stripes meandering across the market like an enormous bumble bee.

‘I’m so sorry.’ Georgie looks flustered, is juggling a couple of hot drinks in Styrofoam cups. ‘Couldn’t find hot chocolate. I got us some coffee.’ She licks a finger. ‘Bloody thing leaks.’

Jen pushes off the wall. ‘I was beginning to think you’d got lost.’

‘Sorry. I popped back to the guest house to get something.’ She rummages around a large shoulder bag. ‘Laura gave it to me last Christmas. I thought you might like it.’

It’s a photograph, a slightly out of focus snapshot of a market. Two old women are laughing back at the photographer, presumably Laura, scarves draped across their forearms in a shimmer of cherry and aquamarine. Behind them and half out of view is an old man perched on a stool, his face twisted at an odd angle. He’s clutching a pigeon to his chest, one wing lifted, the movement blurred.

Jen remembers the picture and Laura’s eyes as she’d described her life in Indonesia.

‘For goodness sake.’ Georgie’s hair collects froth from the edge of her cup as she looks up then down. ‘Would you believe it? It’s the same man. Look!’

Jen wants to disagree, irritated by Georgie’s cheerful amazement, but her sister is right. A little older, his maroon kopiah, the cotton cap worn by so many Indonesians, perhaps a little faded but the same nonetheless. Unbelievably, he’s still holding a pigeon. Cupped against his chest, the poor bird looks as dishevelled as the expression creased into the old man’s face. ‘Poor thing.’

‘I wouldn’t bet on it. He’s probably a lot richer than we are. And happier.’

‘I meant the bird.’ Even though she hadn’t.

‘I’m sure the bird’s fine. You know, Laura told me they have a saying here. A man’s only considered a real man if he has a house, a wife, a horse, a dagger and a bird.’

‘What? In that order?’ Jen stares at the dozens of cages stacked in a muddle around them, their inhabitants fluttering against the bars or huddled in quiet puddles, and recalls something Laura had said during one of their weekly skype chats.

You wouldn’t believe how many birds they have here. As pets, I mean. Everyone seems to have one.

A few months later, Jen watched a documentary on avian flu, and Laura had assured her that she was being careful.

The government’s set up teams to cull any that are illegal pets.

It had sounded cruel.

Not for the people. Not when there’s an eighty-five percent death rate.

Seeing the cages reminds Jen of the photographs Laura had brought home. At first she’d thought she was looking at a festival, a large crowd and a flash of orange at its centre, a glint of silver and feathers. But the colour had come from men in protective overalls, their knives catching the light, the crowd merely witnesses to a silent slaughter.

An image of the blood makes her think of Laura and she wonders why she agreed to come. It had been Georgie’s idea, a pilgrimage, of sorts. Her sister seemed to think they’d gain something from seeing where Laura died. But then Georgie spoke fluent Indonesian, had chosen to learn their father’s native tongue then fallen in love with the country and passed her passion on to Laura.

Jen blocks the inevitable thoughts that follow; ugly and unreasonable – not fair to her sister or to Laura.

Later that afternoon, she throws up. Unused to the rich flavours and the pathogens in the food, her stomach rebels leaving her clammy and trembling. When she recovers, Georgie feeds her rice sweetened with palm sugar, and bottled lemonade, and they sit outside, the night sky dimmed through an underbelly of mist. There’s an argument drifting up from the alleys to their left and a light rain rattles the leaves of the palms, laying spots in the dust.

Jen thinks about the last time she’d looked up at the stars. The day before Laura had been due to fly home. It was something they’d always done. Look up at the stars and say goodnight to the people they loved – the ones no longer living; Jen’s father and mother among them.

The next day she got the call. Laura had been taking a taxi to the airport. The driver survived the accident, Laura did not. She doesn’t remember too much since then. Twelve months of patching up what was left of her emotions.

After a couple of days, Jen’s stomach settles and Georgie loses patience. ‘We should go for a walk. It’ll do you good.’ She looks tired.

They take turns choosing the direction, wandering through the alleyways that circle their guest house, quickly getting lost. Georgie claims she can feel Laura’s presence, believes it utterly. It wouldn’t surprise Jen if her daughter were with them. Her brief life had been such a light, ethereal thing that it made sense, she could imagine it, Laura’s spirit unfettered and drifting.

There’s an inarticulate shout and a group of children wash past, thin-limbed and shrieking with laughter. The last child is desperately trying to keep up, her cheeks wet with tears. The others ignore her and are soon gone, the little girl left staring at the dust that cups their footprints.

Just behind her stands the man from the market. He’s tucked into a corner, watching them silently; same hat, same shirt, same shorts, identical expression. Only the bird is missing. Jen catches his eye and quickly looks away. She doesn’t want him coming over, isn’t interested in anything he has to sell and can’t bear the thought of Georgie turning a simple coincidence into something more.

‘We should go.’ She turns to block Georgie’s view but her sister has already seen.

‘Good grief. It’s the man from the market. The one in Laura’s picture.’

‘Don’t Georgie.’

‘Why? Oh. Poor little love.’ Her attention is turned by the little girl who has started to cry. She takes out a pencil and crouches down beside her, starts to draw pictures in the dirt. Jen watches the way the pencil shifts the soil leaving shallow furrows, the parts joining to form a peacock, the eyes in its tail perfectly round.

Everything around them is the colour of rust, the soil still damp from the night before, the smells earthy and warm. A door slams and someone, somewhere laughs, the person invisible inside a rambling collection of houses. Just behind Georgie, narrow wooden boxes painted in pastel blues and yellow have been fixed to an unsteady stone wall. She can see movement behind cut out windows; a beak, feathers, occasionally an eye suspended in darkness. They are coops she realises – pushed into the corners – perhaps the place where the old man keeps his pigeon.

It’s as if she’s spoken out loud, the way he frowns and wanders over, his feet soundless on the soft earth. His appearance feels like an intrusion and she pretends not to notice, pushes him back with silence and a slight leaning away. When he speaks, Georgie stands up to answer. They talk for a while, easily, Georgie with half an eye on the child. She’s given her the pencil and oddly shaped creatures are being birthed into the dirt.

Jen only speaks once the old man leaves. ‘What did he want?’

‘Nothing. He thought we might be lost. I don’t think they get many tourists down this way.’ There’s an edge to Georgie’s tone that Jen is beginning to hear more often. ‘Not everyone wants something, Jen.’

They walk in silence for a while and Jen doesn’t argue when Georgie chooses somewhere to stop for lunch. There’s a pond beside the cafe, its edges muddled with shreds of plastic and dense reeds. Birds flit between the water and their curled over tips. Jen finds their quick, darting movements hypnotic – oddly soothing.

A waitress pours them water and hands Georgie a menu.

‘It wasn’t my fault. Laura coming here,’ Georgie says. ‘Her accident. None of it, Jen. Laura wanted to understand where she comes from. What was I supposed to do?’

Jen can sense Georgie staring across at her but doesn’t look up. ‘I never said it was your fault. Not once, Georgie.’

‘No? Then how come I feel like you do?’

It sounds like something is hitching a ride on the words, something thick and heavy.

When Jen doesn’t speak, Georgie raises her voice. ‘You think I wanted it to happen? I question myself every day, Jen. Imagine what life would be like if … if, I don’t know. If I hadn’t encouraged her. If she’d chosen not to go. But it wasn’t me, Jen. It wasn’t my fault, and I’m tired of being made to feel like it was.’

Jen can’t stop staring at the birds. Imagines herself hovering – high and far, her body feathered and light; her bones hollow.

‘We should order something,’ she says eventually.

When Georgie shoves back her chair and leaves, she lets her go.

Jen walks for a while, allowing her feet to choose the path, jamming her thoughts out of reach, her senses taking over, locking onto the present. The sun is hot, drawing out moisture from deep inside the ground. She can hear the sing-song call of the man selling fish cakes, the purr of a motor cycle. Heat and sound crawl across her skin, setting their hooks into her stomach. She imagines herself back home and finds herself back in the crumbling alleys of the Kampong. The old man is still there, standing beside the pigeon coop, his face raised to the sun.

Jen hesitates then walks over. She feels the need to apologise for her earlier rudeness but has no idea how, smiles instead, and stares at the birds. She remembers the photograph and takes it out – offers it to him. Instead of wonder, she’s met with confusion and a slow gathering of moisture in his eyes. He points to one of the women and all Jen understands is that he knows her, his sister perhaps, or wife.

She shakes her head. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’

When he turns to one of the narrow boxes, unclips a small door and eases out a pigeon, she feels panic rise in her chest, thinks he’s giving it to her.

Instead he lets it perch on his wrist and feeds it grains of rice.

She has the sudden urge to snatch the bird out of his hands, toss it into the sky and watch it fly, see it wheel above the rooftops and settle into the gaps between the eaves. Nothing, she thinks, should be caged. But that’s not quite true. Because she knows that if she opens her mouth to speak, she will never be able to gather the words back inside. And Georgie is right, fairly or unfairly, Jen does blame her. Not for Laura’s death but for sending her so far away that she wasn’t able to be there – not even to say goodbye.

There’s a ringing tone, an insistent buzzing in her pocket. She doesn’t need to look to know that it’s her sister. The old man waits for her to answer, they both do. She knows she won’t.

The man is talking, telling her that this is the same bird; the one in the photograph. The way he looks at it brings a lump to her throat.

‘It’s beautiful,’ she says. ‘Your bird. It’s beautiful.’

The man shakes his head then points at the woman.

Her bird?’

He nods. ‘Wife,’ he says.

Jen doesn’t need to be told that the man’s wife is dead – she can see it from the look in his eyes, finally understands the expression ground into his face. It comes from feelings she also has grown to know.

Words pool in her mind, memories of her daughter’s voice.

Of course it’s safe. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s beautiful. You should come and see.

The irony burns.

There’s a sudden squeal of brakes and a flash of orange, a motorbike on its side. People start to run, someone’s shouting, a woman scoops a child into her arms and a moan scratches at the back of Jen’s throat – too much is happening for her to pull the parts into any kind of order. An image claws into her mind, an image of orange overalls and facemasks, plump birds hanging by their ankles, Laura’s face and a crimson stain spreading its edges into the dirt.

When her eyes clear, the man is next to her, his hand on her arm. There’s the salty tang of blood in her mouth where she’s bitten into her cheek. Tears tangle in her eyelashes and she begins to cry, finds she cannot stop.

‘It’s not fair,’ she whispers.

The old man presses the pigeon into her hands, unclenching her fists to give it somewhere to settle. It’s a pure soft white, its belly puffed out and plump. She can hear it calling, a light-throated sound that leaves her breathless. When the bird leans its body into her warmth something in Jen’s body responds. Beneath her fingertips she feels the pigeon breathe, sweet, silent breaths that flutter against her skin; feels its life flowing softly into her body, taking flight within the hollows inside her bones.

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Alys Jackson

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Alys Jackson is a fiction writer based in Australia. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Henry Lawson Anthology of Prose and Poetry, 2017, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jan 2018 and Jellyfish Review, April 2018. In 2017 she received the Harold Goodwin Short Story Award. See more of her work at alysjackson.com

If you enjoyed Hollow Bones leave a comment and let Alys know.

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