This is the summer I learn how to swim. My sun-burnished skin and tangled hair, hot feet on the sand and the bottle caps I find in the brush. Mum tells me to throw them out but I burrow them away in my pocket and hide them in my room. These are prickly days clinging tight to my skin. Heat rustles through the wheat and ripples up from the bitumen. We walk to the river from our house and use an old crate as a step to climb over the barbed wire fence.
It doesn’t rain that year and I hear my uncle talking about the drought. It is an airless, dry summer and the river shrinks into the sand while the roots of the old willow grab at the shore. We use an eggtimer for showers and we often run out of hot water so I have to rinse my hair in the kitchen sink. My uncle brings us ice-cream containers full of figs from his tree. Sometimes we go down and collect them while his old dogs bark at us from underneath the Norfolk pines. They are plump and juicy and split in our hands. He makes fig jam that we spread onto the bread that Mum bakes. She complains that it is too dry here and sourdough doesn’t rise like it does in Krabi.
We are the only Asian kids at school, and the only kids being raised by a single mum. When my dad leaves, we stop getting invited to dinner parties. Mum reads Harry Potter to us, sitting between our beds. One kid calls me Mexican, and then we are just called ‘Asian’, as if there are too many Asian countries and they are too hard to learn, or maybe they are too lazy to distinguish between all the different ones. I wish that my last name was O’Connor like my mum’s, or Thompson, or even Lang, which is a little easier to swallow.
Then there are the summers in Point Lonsdale, in an old white weatherboard house on Baillieu Street. My older sister and I share a room. The sunroom out the back has a bookshelf shoved full of kids books and adult novels, none of them all that appealing. Instead I bring my own, my suitcase heavy and overflowing. When I am thirteen, I read all of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in the sunroom. When I am fifteen, I read If I Stay. When I am sixteen, I read Atonement, the last book I’ll read in the sunroom in that house.
Sometimes, I write letters to myself that I sign off like Robbie does, “come back to me”. I think about the pain of separation, the distance and the old ache, the severing of things, like Pullman’s strange machine. With little mosquitoes buzzing on my eyelids and my sister’s soft breathes like the tide, sounding against the dark, I dream about London.
When I am two weeks out from a solo trip to Europe, I try to compile a reading list. I end up buying Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I read it from Rome down to Positano, lying on a sundeck overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. I walk away from Sorrento, out of town and past the markets on the side of the road, down to the beach. Marketgoers fill baskets with paper bags of breadsticks and bunches of silver beet and plump little tomatoes.
I finish the novel on the train to Venice, which is empty except for a few other passengers. Under the Tuscan sun with my backpack at my feet, I think about all the versions of myself, like Sexton’s double image. Somewhere nearby there is a girl that looks like me with her hair in plaits. And the lucerne outside her window whistles in the summer, and there is no rain on her little house or in the dam, and the pool is empty and filled with old leaves.
There is a sense of turning, a sense of looking back. I am holding these books up against my eyes like lenses at the optometrist, switching between them and reading between the lines. I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and it says: the sticky smell of petrol in summer. I read Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and it says: Point Lonsdale in January and my shiny sunburnt shoulders. I read Island by Alistair Macleod and he asks me: in whose footsteps do you stand? What is the name of this boat you are strapped to?
I think that everything is just chapters strung together by things that don’t seem to be related. And it is only through understanding all the books and poems I have read that maybe the rest will start to make sense. This is my language of translation. This is the way I am trying to understand who to be. I think I am some sort of chameleon, or an old lady with a trolley rummaging through bargain bins and shopping bags looking for something to cling to, a shawl or coat I can wear. I think in Macleod’s voice, with the other fishermen looking over my shoulder and out to sea, with Plath’s hands gripping my elbows and the rest of them are standing around this table I am lying on, asking me questions in muffled voices, as if from underwater.
The summer before I leave for uni the golden orb spiders come in, their webs latticing against the trees. They come out at night and stay until March. More parents we know are splitting up; new cases crop up every week. Our friend Louise finds texts on her dad’s phone to a woman he works with. I think about all these women who convince themselves to marry men who lie to them. These men, who I feel watching me at the train station and who stand a little too close. Is it inevitable that one day I will become one of these women? Or instead, maybe I will look around and realise that these men are all around me. And trying to escape them is like wading through a pond, overgrown and choked with weeds.
I am too scared to go outside that summer: of having spiders fall on me or getting caught in one of their sticky nets. So, instead I stay inside and read Nabokov’s Lolita as Lana Del Rey sings quietly in the background. I imagine Lolita, lying on a picnic blanket, looking up at all these spider webs. She holds her hands in front of her eyes and they are between her fingers and in her hair. Little spiders crawling all over her skin.
Now, it is a long time since hot mornings on the farm and Mum doesn’t bake bread anymore. Perhaps this is the tree I have been climbing my whole life. These branches always snagging on the soft cotton of my T-shirt, these dirty fingernails and this knotting hair. Perhaps this is the song I have been trying to remember and that strange nagging memory, of a dark apartment, the door opening for us and the soft cloying perfume that I catch passing strangers on the street. Is this a dream, half-remembered? Or is it just a scene from my childhood, played back to me now, as if through the shadows of the leaves of a tree shifting and floating against the sides of our old house?
What it tells me is this: only when I leave home am I able to understand all the ways it changed me, and the ways I will never leave it behind. Maybe this is the book I have always been trying to write, and at the same time, the book I have always been reading. Even in the city, my feet are sinking into the grainy sand of the riverbank. I hear the soft buzz of insects in summer and the thin sheet of frost on my window is like the frost on the windscreen of our old car. I am throwing hot water on all of it and seeing the cracks spread.
When I go home now, I catch the train. Opposite me, a man sleeps across three seats with his beanie pulled down over his eyes and his feet hanging off the edge. The train conductor’s wife sits next to me eating a flaky sausage roll from the cafe. The pastry gets caught in her scarf. As he’s checking tickets, the conductor sits with her and they talk about what they’ll have for dinner and when he’s going back. There are three books in the backpack at my feet, but I leave them there and look out the window instead. These are books I have already read and one day might reopen, and I will give them to my sister, who is only just now starting to read herself.
It is a long time since all of us have lived in this house. And now it is the end of summer, harvest season. There is a tall mound of harvested grain covered with a blue tarpaulin in the back paddock. We stand on top of it spitting cherry pips into our palms. Down at my uncle’s house the old fig tree is dying and all the oranges are falling off his tree. Planting apricot seeds in the backyard, we pray for rain. One day we will sell this old house but for now, while it is hot, we will go down to the river and maybe fish and maybe camp there. I pack my bathers just in case but the car is running and I think they are waiting for me.
Natalie Sakarintr is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. She is currently studying a Master of Writing and Publishing at RMIT and has been previously published in Potluck Mag and by the Bowen Street Press. She writes about growing up mixed race in rural Victoria, the landscape and memory.
Alice Mao is an emerging artist in the greater Seattle area. Her work explores identity, anxiety, and digital distortion. More can be found on her website, https://www.alice-mao.com or her instagram, @alicemaoart.