by Judith Steele
A priest in white robes lives in a lofty cool temple. Outside is a desert, red sand dunes, sky solid blue. The priest stands at the arched exit of the temple, strains his eyes, sees sand and sky, black shadows. Are they shadows of people? He hears screams, or is it laughter? Not for the first time, he wishes for the courage to go out. But he thinks: Is it a laugh or a scream? He retreats into the safety of the temple.
Bird song from trees in the castle garden. A woman in soft gowns and floating veils, day after day protected and sheltered by riches not hers, her only wealth her potential to produce a male heir. Her absent lord married her for just that purpose, but she has failed him. Every day she smiles at everyone, sitting with her useless beauty in the walled garden.
Twenty uniformed men crouching in wet grass in the mist on the top of a hill, watching four stone buildings at the bottom of the valley. Inside the stone buildings are twenty men wearing a different uniform. Sentries stand at the doorways to watch the hilltop. Not long after dawn, some men of one uniform or the other will possess the territory of these stone buildings. Not long after dawn, some men of both uniforms will be dead. The soldiers of both uniforms wait for dawn, hoping their obedience will outlast their fear.
Cherry works in an office, the only female in a hush-hush job, between two wars. She wears a sober dark suit, red red lips, takes pride in her work, her life fulfilled. Something happens, a slip-up by someone too important to take the blame. Someone has to take the blame. Cherry is not supporting a wife or children. Cherry can retire to the country they say, with her dear old parents. She understands, she is not one of the boys. She packs up her desk, walks sedately and obediently from the office. In the corridor she screams. And screams. And screams. Inside the office, the men wait for her to stop.
Every day the child tries to find the way to please the mother. Every night when the father comes home the mother whispers to him, and the father shouts at the child. When the mother is sick and the father is absent, the uncle comes and takes the child into her bedroom and shuts the door and the child thinks she is being punished for making her mother sick and her father absent, and thinks when she has finished being punished, it will all end.
She is silent and waits for dawn. She smiles meaninglessly in paralysed obedience. She forgets. With whatever cunning the brain has to hide events. If not feelings. She becomes a
loudmouthed rebel, a catastrophic risk-taker, dangerous to everyone and herself. The intelligence she has produces nothing.
One day she remembers. With whatever treachery the brain has to store what it has hidden; and to produce it at an unknown signal from parallel events, words, feelings, appearances. She is paralysed by fear. She retreats to silence. She wants to break it, to walk in the open, to have the courage to speak, or simply to scream. Will she?
Judith Steele is Australian. Her poetry has appeared in Northern Territory and South Australian publications including Northern Perspective, Northerly, Dymocks Northern Territory Literary Awards, Friendly Street Poets. Poetry or prose has appeared on websites including The Animist, Four and Twenty, Islet Online (as Dita West), In other Words:Merida .
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painting by Skot Horn