White

White appeared in We All Need a Witness, UTS Writers’ Anthology 2008.

The girl was born milky and malleable like fresh dough. As the doctor took the child from her watery cradle and dangled her by her ankles, blood flooded from her mother’s body, draining her of all colour. Lying splayed and stirruped, her mother looked up and  saw the floating baby’s albino skin and thought an angel had come to take her away. And so it was that a raven-haired woman and a red-faced man made a child with white lashes and see-through skin.

Knowing her father was not a God-fearing man, when the old pastor buried her mother he threw in a christening that same day. After the priest wetted her floppy head, the child opened her delicate eyes to the too-bright world and locked onto the old man’s gaze. Knowing her father hadn’t named her, the priest christened her the very colour of her eyes, and passing the infant back to her father said, ‘A creature made of light will surely attract darkness.’

Chastened by the way his manhood had sprayed out such a ghostly vision, Violet’s father rarely looked directly at her. He pledged to hide his shame by hiding her condition from the sun and more importantly from himself. He wouldn’t allow her to go outdoors during daylight and as she grew older she became confined to the lush valley and the rocky mountains surrounding it.

Although he was saddened by his wife’s sudden departure (he waited six months to trim the beard she’d curled her fingers round and tugged on hard when the child that killed her finally burst out), she was nonetheless swiftly replaced by a beauty pageant of over-rouged impostors. Violet would hear them arrive late at night then leave a few hours later, relieved that this would not be an occasion that her father would demand she lie next to him while he felt under her night-dress.

Each afternoon, after hours of private tuition in a dark annex off the kitchen, Violet would go down to the cellar to crush grapes in a giant wooden barrel. Her father’s liverish nature was reluctantly endured only because he made the most desired and expensive merlot in the valley. His wines were renowned for their softness and suppleness, a trait that he knew all too well came from the feline tamping of his daughter’s bare feet.

Each evening Violet would go to her private bathroom to soak and scrub her stained skin, for the grapes’ vermilion dye was as persistent as a birthmark and as colourful as a bruise. Even though they weren’t stained, Violet would start with her hands, scrubbing under the bitten nails so they were immaculate for the rest of her work.

She’d stoop to slough her feet, translucent and veiny with skin as thin as eucharists, scrubbing purposefully, in small sharp strokes, back and forth and back and forth, working up her legs until she reached the place where blood sometimes smeared across the alabaster flesh of her inner thighs. Then she’d pat herself dry with a soft rag. Its ancestor was a crocheted cot blanket she’d found in the back of her father’s closet, under a musty pile of never worn bibs and booties – all blue.

One morning when she came to breakfast, her father greeted her with charred toast and news that a stranger was coming to stay. Violet stared at the blackened square. Apart from her father’s whores and her tutors, no one cared to visit.

‘Just tonight. To stop the pests.’

Violet knew of the pests, the fungus, the endless threat to the vineyards – she’d learned of them from her father’s wine journals, which she read more for their pictures of faraway places than to better her winemaking knowledge.

That evening as she soaked and scrubbed, Violet heard the stranger’s truck arriving long before it did, labouring up over the hills then rumbling down until it finally appeared with the rising moon. She stepped back from the bathroom window and went to her room, not knowing what it was she was hiding from. Though it was early, Violet fell into a deep sleep.

She dreamt of being in the womb, the only time she was held by her mother, the only time they’d spent together, and she felt warm and weightless as if she were floating naked on her back in a river, unafraid of currents or eels or the sun. When she woke at the end of her squishy slumber, wanting to empty her bladder, she’d forgotten about the stranger in the house. It wasn’t through lack of manners that she opened the bathroom door without wondering why it was shut (her father never used hers), let alone imagining that someone could be in there. When she did, in the soft dawn yawning through the window, she saw a body as dark as hers was light.

Violet stood in the doorway watching the stranger in the bath. Instead of looking away Violet wanted to burn the image of the stranger’s body onto her retina: the matted tufts that spat from the scalp; the black skin shiny like patent leather; the flat, smooth torso certain and beckoning like a worn river rock; and the genitals – under water, but undeniable. The stranger was a woman.

It was only then that Violet dared to look into the stranger’s inky eyes, and she felt a sudden calm knowing that with her there would never be anything to be frightened of. With a stranger there’s no past, which is where all Violet’s fear lived. Troubled by an impulse to cry, Violet bowed her head and silently returned to her bed. A few minutes later there was a knock on her door.

Entering, the stranger said, ‘I’m sorry if I surprised you.’

Violet shivered. She felt as if all the curtains in the house had been pulled back and the windows thrown open.

Sitting on the end of Violet’s bed the stranger said, ‘I’m just about to go. Do you want to see what I’ve done?’

Violet liked feeling the weight of the stranger against her feet. She didn’t want to move, but she didn’t want her to go either. The stranger stood up to leave. Violet instinctively held out her hand. The stranger took it and led Violet through the only home she’d ever known, yet she felt as if she was being taken somewhere she’d never been.

Often in the pre-dawn light, when it was safe for Violet to let the air lick her without disobeying her father or fearing the sun, she would run barefoot on the cut grass down to the waiting battalion of vines. Now as they left the house, the stranger put both her hands over Violet’s eyes and led her blindfolded to them. As the stranger removed her hands, Violet could see that a rose bush had been planted at the end of each row of grapes, and each rose, red like sex, was fat and fecund.

 

‘Pests prefer the smell of roses to wine,’ whispered the stranger into Violet’s ear. Cupping a rose in both hands, Violet smelt its lusty perfume. The petals will be eaten first and your father will have enough warning – days, even weeks – to save his fruit.’

 

‘It’s a beautiful lure,’ Violet replied, and feeling a sudden delirious heat rise through her body, turned to face the stranger and kissed her. Then, like a study in chiaroscuro, as light sinks into darkness and darkness consumes light, the vintner’s daughter and the viticulturist drank each other up under a rosebush.

Staying true to her word, the stranger, who had promised to leave before breakfast-time, tried to unlace herself from Violet’s body. But as she rose Violet rose, and she saw that Violet’s whole body had blushed.

‘I have to go now,’ the stranger said gently. ‘Before your father wakes.’

Brushing the grass from Violet’s lint-like hair, the stranger wasn’t surprised by the girl’s tears. Feeling an irresistible urge to protect her she said, ‘Come with me.’

Whether it was because their bodies were still glued from the seduction, or because for the first time in her life the morning sun didn’t feel like it was something to be feared, Violet couldn’t help but follow. For though she tried, she couldn’t think of a reason to stay. Without returning to the house to leave a note or collect a blanket or a brush, Violet climbed up into the truck next to a stranger who smelt of her soap and felt a safeness she didn’t recognise. Looking over her shoulder, Violet watched her childhood home became a vanishing point. As they fled the valley – and her father discovered an empty bed – all three wondered how such a thing could have happened.

It took almost a week to reach the stranger’s home in the desert, driving at night to protect Violet’s eyes, but mostly to spend the days unfurling each other’s bodies in roadside motels. They ate from the same plate and drank from the same cup and slept on sheets soaked from sweat and surrender.

When the truck approached the stranger’s home one daybreak, Violet saw a house made of oyster shells floating in a haze of heat above the ruddy earth. They ran to the house like children to a sandpit, the pindan dust kicking up onto their minstrel skins and head straight to the bedroom, where they woke hours later with lips stained rust-red from all the places they’d kissed.

Each evening Violet’s lover returned from her work with ochre-dusted overalls and pockets full of pollen. Each morning, after they aired the sheets and bathed their bodies, her lover would paint her country over Violet’s skin, creating an ever-changing landscape of waterholes and rolling spinifex, yam daisies and kangaroo paw. Coating her in an armour of colour so Violet didn’t have to shirk the sunshine.

When the rains came, the pollen stopped.

‘I feel so pale,’ Violet said, taking her lover’s hands and kissing her indigo palms. Without the daily stains from her father’s grapes or the colours of her lover’s country, Violet had become transparent.

‘There’s a great artist, a tattooist I know who can help,’ her lover said. ‘I’ll take you to him tomorrow.’

‘Let’s go now,’ Violet stretched out her cadaveric arms and imagined them coloured-in.

They filled the truck with swags and supplies and headed across the desert. They drove purposefully all night and day, not distracted by the passing gorges casting cathedral-like shadows over the red earth, or the boab trees stretching their spindly scarecrow branches or the giant owl that swooped across the windscreen at the first hint of the darkening sky. They reached the city days later, driving through crooked alleys and rancid lanes, finally stopping in front of a small tattoo parlour.

A man, more beautiful than handsome, stood in the shop doorway and smiled. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he said.

‘This is my brother,’ her lover gestured as she walked over and embraced him. His skin was much paler than hers and his hair fell in soft ringlets on his shoulders.

‘Come in,’ he said.

Armed with pots of ink, ointments and a bottle of brandy, he mixed a paste of pigment with the gelatin of camel skin. Using a thorn as his needle and daubing her blood with muslin, he etched climbing vines around her pale limbs and torso and planted a single rose on the mound of flesh over her heart – etching a perennial garden over Violet’s body to permanently shade her skin from the sun.

***

Violet’s father had declared she’d been kidnapped, though no reason could be thought of nor ransom note found. After the search parties stopped and the posters came down and the reward had devalued, he drank himself into a cremator’s oven, but not before hacking out every rosebush at the end of each vine. Even though his were the only vines in the valley never invaded by pests, all the villagers remarked how bitter his wines had become since the day his daughter disappeared.

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