Fiction

For the perishable body

Look, a dead great-uncle. He is staring straight ahead through a black-and-white film as his boat carves through the waves. He is standing on a beach all scratched up and flickering. He is wearing war medals stored in a box I can’t find in the shed. He is meeting me as a toddler in a car park, though I’m told he was long gone then. He is speaking through my father on a dull day with the sky sunk deep in its own pool or the sky padded with clouds or the sky a painted cream ceiling with the cracks all dark and starting to leak; a day where the air is gusting with sun or the afternoon streaming with rain – do I look outside, are the curtains closed all day to hug our chill rooms? – and this great-uncle tells of working at auctions in the old Burns Mart, the excitement of the crowd bidding over boxes from lucky dip estates. “The Huon pine tables were popular,” he says.

Of course, I think, straw-coloured dream timber smelling of the sweet, clean and dirty forest. Timber that was sliced up for shipbuilding; rare, patient timber, slow-growing trees that never got around to rotting. Our bed is Huon and we have other bits and pieces from the slow release of old logs; honest treasure, fresh, malleable gold that sends shivers through you like a forest caught by fresh wind. And this great-uncle explains that people would buy these Huon pine tables cheap at auction, tear off the legs and slam the flat remainder in their trailers as a sturdy and incorruptible surface on which to dump firewood and gravel, dirt and shit. Then he slips back out of the room, dead.

“Brilliant!” I yell, punching the air, and rush out to the car, leaving my family in the house. I hunt down all the pine I can find in sawmills, timber yards, tourist shops. I grab anything: huge, raw slabs, the flimsiest cheese knife. Clocks, pepper shakers, spatulas. Offcuts by the box. I rack planks in the bathroom, the shed, line them on the Colorbond roof so the rain wets them and they shine like a pale, declining sun. Grey, weathered burls fill the lounge room and old roots are packed in the rafters. I pile the pantry with short lengths and sawdust carpets the hardwood floors. When the whole house is bursting I go to work hammering and sawing.

First, I build a boat. It is ugly and out of square, like a picture frame dropped from a great height, but when I lie down it carries me on the water. I paddle across the river to the islands, leave it for the tides to drink, and start to line the walls of the house. I work on the vegetable gardens. The driveway. The deck. They will last forever. I take apart the SUV’s engine and replace the spark plugs, the engine block. When a glass breaks in the kitchen I carve new cups from the pine and when my wife takes the kids to her parents’ I make a new wife and children and sit them round the table. Fruit trees wither outside in the dry heat and I replace them with new trees raised from the timber. They will never drop their leaves, none of this will ever rot, and it makes me so happy and relieved that tears are pouring down my cheeks. When I start to feel sick I know what to do: mix sawdust with water and drink.

When the great-uncle returns, the smell of timber is overpowering. He doesn’t speak.

“Is this right?” I ask. “Is this how it’s done?”

He is silent. He looks like a stain in the timber and I hurry over to grab a rag, rubbing at the surface until he disappears.

“Now?” I ask and then he looks like a patch of water damage in the floor. This is trickier but I shred his image with the belt sander. I track down his grave and hammer pine stakes into the dirt and then my car heaves home and I stagger into the lounge, frowning at what is left of the timber and drawing question marks on the wood. All the pine is quiet, riffing mute bird’s-eye.

“Well?” I shout. “What next?” The sound is absorbed by the wood and I can barely hear myself. My voice is the sound of the wind in the trees but there is no wind, it has all died out and the leaves are still. We are in the middle of a deep forest, it is very dark and green moss is creeping across the floor, the walls and my feet. We stand a long time, until every day and night are the same day and night.

I am no longer sure who is breathing.

 

When the fires leap through the window and blast open the doors they chase splinters into the corners of the house and then we are burning and I am stumbling up the road towards the river, slow and rough like my roots are anchors dragging in the gravel. The flames are just behind me; my skin scorches and the pain is like a crosscut saw. I fall down the bank and tumble into the rapids, floating downstream and drifting for years in the lakes like a trout migrating to breed. Maybe I spend decades under water and find a new way to rot. Maybe the rivers carry me to the deep west where twisted old pines grow and I clamber out of the river and graft to a trunk. Maybe someone digs me from the depths and mills me gently into boards for a table, a sideboard, a coffin, caressing my lengths and sanding my rough skin smooth.

Maybe the days are long again. Maybe the trees are tall. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "For the perishable body".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer, and the fiction editor at Island.