sunset over chocolate mountains
di Susan Elderkin
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I hear him calling me by his favourite names – Sugar, Honey, Jelly- O, Cream Tea. I open my eyes and there, blinking in the darkness, are the two tiny rounds of his eyes, the blue watered down until it is barely there at all. There’s a shadowy dimple on his chin, like a finger poked in a wodge of dough.
He is hovering by my bed, an eager-to-please smile on his face.
– Wake up, Jelly-O! Time to get up.
I am only four years old, but he wipes the sweat from his palms on the backs of his thighs and pulls me from my bed because the sky is clear and the stars, he says, have never seemed nearer to Earth.
-But I’ve seen the stars, I whine, toppling against him, too drowsy to support the weight of my own head.
-No you haven’t, he says. Not like this.
I don’t lift a finger to help. Propping against him, he does up the buttons at the neck of my nightie, pulls my moccasins on and scrabbles around under my bed for a jumper. When he gives up and goes to fetch one of his own, I keel over again. He comes back in with a large yellow cardigan, and I let him wrap it round me. He forgets to pull my hair out from underneath so I do it myself as soon he turns his back.
Outside, the cool shadows that lurk under rocks and beneath houses during the day have crept out for their night-time prowl.
Fingers of them climb up my legs beneath my nightie, chasing out the warmth of my bed. Cold beats hot, like stone beats scissors and paper beats stone.
My father is shining a torch ahead of him on to the path, as he has taught me to do, and we pick our way behind it, trying not to catch our clothes on the spikes of the prickly pears. Wide eyes appear in the beam of light for a second and then are gone. Ahead of us, something large scuffle and snorts through the undergrowth, a flash of white flank, but my father doesn’t notice: he is too intent on reaching the slab of granite that sleeps like an enormous guard dog at the bottom of our garden. He scrambles up, then pulls me up behind him, loose bits of grit digging into my palms and fingers swamped in the hot. Clammy folds of his. It is not clear who is doing the holding and whose hand is being held.
The rock is our lookout tower, lifting us up off the desert floor and into the realms of the sky. From here we have an unbroken view over the valley floor and all the way to the mountains, hulking on the skyline like creeping thieves with bags of swag slung over their shoulders. A slice of white moon dangles above them, fine as a fingernail paring.
Tut-tut, says the moon at their hulking shapes, so precise and queenly herself. You boys should neaten up.
My father stands with his legs in an upside-down V, cleaving together at the top then splaying out to the sides, like a duck about to slip on a sheet of ice. Without a word, he tips his head right back. For a moment I think he’s going to gargle the air. Then I tip my head back too, as far as it will go without pulling me over backwards, and suddenly I see them, thousands and thousands of pin-pricks of light, teeming and bickering in the deep blue velvet cushioning of the sky like tiny crabs crawling over the ocean floor.
They are proud creatures, the stars, and don’t like to be pinned down. Stare at one of them too hard, and it dodges to one side.
-Can they see us?
I whisper, as if I might frighten them away.
-Oh yes. We’re one of them too.
– What, you and me?
-No, the Earth.
Solemnly, as if we are in a holy place, a cathedral in England or Mount Sinai in the Bible, and receiving a list of dos and don’ts from God, my father begins to tell me the names of the stars, starting with the North Star and moving around the configurations. The Great Bear and the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia’s Chair, Orion’s Belt, Pollux and Castor, the twins of Gemini. Their whispered names are spells, enchantments, potions which pluck you from the normal world and make you believe that there really are mythical beings living up there, going about their daily business, Orion striding in his heavy, hobnailed boots and slinging down his sword after a hard day’s battle, Cassiopea whizzing past with a flutter of fingers, her long golden hair spilling out behind her like maple syrup from a jar.
In a quiet voice my father explains that the thousands of stars we can see here, above the desert, are only the start of it all. That beyond this universe lie frozen wastelands scattered with the debris of million-year-old explosions, with comets hurtling through at several thousand miles an hour and asteroids careering on wild, freewheeling orbits. And, further away still, beyond these wastelands, are other solar systems, calm and beautiful and in colours no man has ever seen before, complete with their own fiery suns and dying moons and spinning planets. These are other worlds, he says, and the words imprint themselves on my mind as if with a pen dipped in the deep inky blue of the night itself.
We stand there for a long time: dizzy with imagining, until my eyes keep trying to shut and between them the points of the stars stretch like elastic down to the ground. I tug on my father’s hand.
-Dad, can we go back now.
But my father doesn’t move a whisker. He just stands there with
his jaw hanging open, as if he has swallowed a hook and is dangling on the invisible line of a fisherman in the sky who will sooner or later be reeling up for his tea.
Upsadaisy. Easy does it. Hey, look what I’ve caught, fellas! A large human being named Mr Moon!
I try to pull away but his grip is too tight. I begin to panic. What if we are stranded here all night, him stuck to the sky, me stuck to him?
-Dad, let’s go back and make hot chocolate.
That does the trick. The fishing line snaps he gives me a nod. We clamber down, me going first this time shining the flashlight on the path and making sure we don’t tread on any creepy-crawlies.
When we get back, it’s me that puts a saucepan of milk on to boil. We wrap our hands around the hot mugs, dipping oatmeal cookies into the froth so that they’re warm an mushy in our mouths, and that’s when I notice that there are beads of sweat sliding down my father’s face and a wild, empty look in his eyes. I chatter away to fill up the quiet between us, while my father pushes cookies into his trembling mouth, one after another, and thrashes around with his eyes.
– What are you thinking about, Dad?
I am only four years old but he swallows hard and tells me anyway.
-It’s all that space, Jelly-O, going on and on for ever. An endless ribbon of time that goes back, way way back before we existed, and shall go on, way way after we cease to exist, not just you and me, JelIy Bean, but everyone who’s alive now and everyone who’s already lived and who will live in future, and even the Earth itself, for ever and ever, Amen.
Sometimes I open my eyes and he isn’t standing over me at all, but snoring very loudly in his bed across the hallway. I put my moccasins on and push his door open a crack. There he is, with the blankets thrown back, a hulking, navy blue whale with paisley teardrops shuddering gently in the whispery morning light.
It’s cosier in his bed than mine. I creep in behind him and curl my body around the hugeness of his back, tracing the pattern of the teardrops with my finger. After a while the snores stop and a sleep befuddled voice emerges from somewhere deep in the pillow.
I carry on anyway.
– What time is it? Timesit.
– It’s morning time!
– Too early is what it is. Terlyswotiz.
He yanks the covers up over his shoulder, bringing my game to an end. I roll over and busy myself with picking out the little pieces of cheddar cheese and cookie crumbs from the creases of the sheets instead.
– Shall I make you a cup of tea?
No answer. And then, a fluttering, loose-lipped snore.
I give up and go outside, jumping down the three wooden steps and out into the garden, because my father’s no fun in the mornings and anyway it’s special outside, in this hour, before breakfast, with no one else to see. Everything is alive and shimmery as if it were expecting someone important to ride by, the Queen of England, or the Rajah of India, or the Emperor of Japan, and not just Josephine Moon in her nightie. A weak, lemony sun sweeps across the garden scooping up handfuls of dust, and the boastful saguaros throw their shadows from one side to the other as if competing to reach the fence. Up above, vapour trails play tick-tack-toe on the clean blue sheet of the sky.
I run to the end of the drive and lift the lid of the mailbox. Empty. It usually is, unless there’ s an order for ice-cream from Miss Gail’s or an airmail from Aunty Drew. I let the lid drop down with a tinny clang. Then I pick it up and let it drop down again. The clang rings out all the way down the track to the main road and up into the sky, filling the space between me and the mountains like cymbals in an orchestra.
Clang! Clang! Clang! This here’s josephine Moon, telling all you sleepy-heads out there to wake up. Wake up, Tucson! Wake up, Phoenix!
Wake up Los Angeles, New York, Canada, Mexico City! Wake up desert, mountains, birds, saguaros, rocks-
There’s a rustle in a bush and, suddenly nervous of what I might have disturbed, I run back down the track.
The garden is at its busiest now, before the heat is fully up. Grasshoppers with orange-tipped legs leap from the deergrass and battle for a few seconds inside the dark shell of my hands. Bees push their snouts into the trumpets of the flowers, wipe their butts on the pollen, then fly off weighed down with a new pair of yellow pants. I poke my finger down mysterious holes in the ground that could be home to poisonous spiders or scorpions or desert millipedes, and force myself to keep it there while I count up to ten. If I think I feel a tick1e of tiny legs I leap away with a high-pitched screen like the whistle of the Santa Fe railroad train and run round the garden till the fright is all let out.
When I get too hot, I do handstands against the fence and let my nightie fall over my head so that the breeze can brush itself against my skin like a cat. Through the veil of pink cotton I can see a dark shadow moving about in the kitchen, filling up a saucepan of water, turning the tap off so hard it makes a banging sound all the way down the pipes. I drop down and run inside.
-Go on, Dad, just a quicky.
-But it’s not bed-time, Sugar.
-A breakfast-time one, then.
-Not now. Go and get dressed.
On the table are two bowls of steamy porridge. My father levers open a tin of maple syrup, winds a golden rope around his spoon, then dangles it on to his porridge. Three circles around the outside and a T for Theobald in the middle, like he always does.
In the middle of the day, when everything is stony and silent and just trying to stay alive while the air gets boiled around it, the desert offers up its treasure to me. These are mostly dead things – an upside-down beetle baked to a crisp, mummified wren that has impaled itself on a cactus spike and which crumbles into a ball of dusty feathers and splintering bones in the clutch of my hands. Others are treasures which have been lost by someone careless – soda cans that glint and gleam like the beads from a broken necklace, hub caps and fenders that have rolled all the way from the highway, headscarfs and handkerchiefs snagged on a twiggy bush and left to flap prettily in the breeze.
I carry these treasures home and set them down on the kitchen table, my face smeared with grime and my hair falling out of its tight morning plaits.
-Go on, Dad.
-Well, all right then, Sugar Pie. Just the one.
He always sits down first. He does a little cough, ahem, ever so polite and dainty, shrugs his shoulders, smooths the creasesin the tops of his trousers. Sometimes when he does that he notices a bit of dried porridge on his lap, and starts picking it off.
-All right, Sugar Pie. All right.
And so he begins. He gets out his musical up-and-down voice that he keeps for stories, and the words spill out of him, soft and dreamy, like soap bubbles blown from a ring.
Sometimes he takes too long getting to the point, and I have to bring him roundly back.
-Wooah! Hold it right there, mister! What about the sock?
-Be patient, Sugar Pie. I was just getting to it.
-But who does the sock belong to?
-It must be the giant, says my father.
-What giant is that? I ask, although I already know.
-Why, the giant of Sonora! says my father. Looking for a little girl who’s wandered too far from home.
-And what will he do when he finds her?
-He’ll string her up by the legs and salt her like a ham, and he’ll cut delicate slices from her flanks for his breakfast every morning for a week.
-For a week?
l haven’t heard that bit before.
-Little girls don’t go very far.
Sometimes it sounds like there’s a bunch of wild animals running around on the roof, stampeding as if we are in Africa, and I open the blinds to find that it’s raining outside. The rain is so loud it drowns out my father’s snoring.
From the kitchen I watch the pattern of miniature streams running over the hard ground, carrying all the loose stones and twigs away. I worry about the desert millipedes being slooshed out of their holes and the bees being too wet to fly. If they’ve got any sense, they’ll have run for cover beneath the steps of our house or climbed inside a hole in one of the saguaros. l want to be like the animals, so I climb into the cupboard in the hallway where we hang our coats and find a ledge at the back to sit on and wait to be discovered. It’s dark and airless in the cupboard and my father’s rubbery anoraks glide like snakeskins against my face. I stick my hand into all the pockets to see what’s been left behind – a stick of liquorice with little bits of Kleenex stuck to it, a chipped chocolate chip covered in Jimmies, a Coca-Cola chew with the top bitten off. All of a sudden there’s a caving-in beneath me. The ledge is not a ledge after all but a stack of boxes – smooth, oblong boxes. l scramble off the pile, find a lid and pull it off.
Inside is something wrapped in tissue paper. I pick it up, a hard shape between my hands. Pulling the tissue away I find straps, a little buckle that gleams in the crack of light from the door, a high heel. I bring it up to my face and breathe in the smell of leather.
It’s a gold sandal. A woman’s gold sandal.
I unwrap the other one and bring them both out to the hallway.
They’re delicate and flimsy, toppling to one side when l try to stand them on the carpet. The straps are curled at the ends and carry the indent of the buckle. Somebody has worn them before.
l go back into the cupboard and pick up another box and find a pair of flat pink sandals inside. I go back for more, tipping the contents out into a pile, until there is every kind of shoe you can imagine – walking boots, multi-coloured sandals with a thick wedged heel, heavy, wooden clogs rimmed with a line of studs, boots with tassels around the top. On the inside sole of each is written something I don’t understand: Bata. Kozenj zvvrsok, kozena podrazka. There are sheepskin slippers a bit like my own moccasins and a pretty pair of green shoes with pointy toes. In amongst the pile I catch sight of a shoe about the right size for me – a little shiny black shoe with a buckle – and then I lose it again. There’s a pair of tall red boots with a zip up one side and a flash of lightning up the other, stuffed with tissue paper. I gaze at them in wonder, and stand them upright on their box.
No, madam, we don’t have that one in your size, I am so dreadfully sorry. If you’d care to come back tomorrow-
I pull off my moccasins and find the gold sandals. Carefully, I do up the tiny, flimsy buckle around each ankle. I stand up, shakily. My toes slide down to the ends. I have to drag them along the carpet so as not to leave them behind.
The face that’s squashed into the pillow gives a jolt, then a hand comes out and swipes blindly at the air, as if to fend off a fly.
-Dad, it’s only me. Look what I’ve found!
Still he doesn’t open his eyes.
-Tell me the story of the shoes!
The eyes open with a start. For a moment, he looks blank. Then his gaze follows mine to the floor and I wriggle my toes where they poke out at the front of the sandals.
-Aren’t they beautiful?
He’s fully awake now, staring at the shoes with a startled expression on his face.
-Do they belong to a princess?
-No, Sugar Pie, he says quietly. They do not.
His face is flushed. For a moment the only sound is his breath coming hard and fast through his open mouth.
-Take them off.
He swings his legs down to the floor and something about the movement makes me do as I’m told. Quickly, without a fuss. My heart is beating fast and I don’t know why. In one large movement he scoops up the gold sandals with his hand and marches into the hall. He picks up the assorted shoes and the pieces of tissue paper and stuffs them back into their boxes, not bothering to match the pairs together, just packing them roughly away. I think of all the beautiful straps being crushed, the heels scraping against one another. He tosses the boxes back into the cupboard, and shuts the doors behind him before they have a chance to tumble out.
No story? I ask him with my eyes, because by now I don’t dare to speak.
Not that one, he replies with his. Not yet.
He turns a key in the lock of the cupboard door and slips it into his pyjama pocket.
During the daytime, the stories my father tells are for me. But at night, he tells them to himself.
I pad across the hallway and push nervously at his door. There he is, hunched over his desk, the thin cotton of his shirt pulled tight across the wide stretch of his shoulders. I think he hears me, but I can’t be sure, because he carries on scribbling until I’m standing right beside him, tugging at sleeves of my nightie to stop the cold creeping up.
The anglepoise lamp casts a circle of light on the desktop. It’s a magic circle, lighting up his head and shoulders and the pencil in his hand and the large, hardback book with smooth pages. Just outside it, in the shadows, is a box of Crackerjack, and every now and then his hand strays out of the circle, gropes around in the dimness until it hits the top of the box, and plunges in.
More than anything else I want to step inside that circle and become a part of it. I watch as he moves his index finger down the ladder of the lines. The crackle of the paper as he turns a page. I’m so close I can smell the sugar on his breath. But I wait because he isn’t my father any more; he’s someone from one of those Other Worlds.
At last, when I’m about to give up and go back to bed, he puts down his pencil, draws me in with the crook of his arm and gives me a sideways smile. There are little bits of Crackerjack stuck in the gaps between his teeth.
-Where did we get to?
-Black and spooky?
-So thick he has to leave his horse behind and go it alone.
-I remember, he says, and flicks back through the book.
These stories are complicated. They have plots, subplots and sub-subplots. He hushes his voice for the scary bits (when the little girl is lost in a forest full of twisted trees and yellow eyes) and for the soppy bits (when the prince kisses the dead princess and she wakes up and demands eggs for breakfast), and he raises it for the chases and the fights, the slayings of dragons and the roaring of giants, and whenever a king gets angry, he thumps his fist down hard on the desk making the Crackerjack jump out of its box and spill on to the table.
Sometimes there are quests, things to find and bring back. Follow me! He’ll go, and grab me by the hand as we run to escape the North Wind that’s chasing us down the road. Over here! he cries as we leap on the backs of wild-eyed horses that canter across the desert. Look above you! he goes, and we grab the ankles of enormous birds with taloned claws and golden beaks and swing beneath them over the crests of the waves. Now! he cries, and we tumble down on to a deserted beach where he throws me over his shoulder and strides with me through thick pine forests and rows me over sparkling lakes, and crashes with me through thorny thickets and over wooden drawbridges, up spiral stone staircases and into castles. We duck beneath a low doorway before drawing ourselves up tall to get a good view from the battlements, out over the green rolling fields and lakes and snow-capped mountains. Sssh! Canyou hear that? he asks, and we press our ears against the clammy stone wall of the turret to hear the tap-tap-tap coming from the other side.
I look at my father and see the stories race behind his shining eyes.
-Hold it right there, mister! Is this another princess? What about the one you left locked in a dungeon three pages back with only a packet of Gummi Bears and a can of Seven Up to live off?
-Patience! Patience! he replies, wagging his finger at me, and making it look like everything in his stories happens on purpose.
Sometimes I stop listening to the words and all I can hear is the rise and fall of his story-telling voice, lifting me up and dropping me back like waves in the sea. On and on he goes, deeper into his world of golden peacocks and magic carpets and ugly frogs and handsome princes until I see that he no longer knows where he is, or what he’s doing, or who I am, and most of all he does not know that I am only four years old and should be tucked up in bed asleep.
-Dad, I hiss. Da-ad.
But on nights like this it’s best just to take myself quietly off to bed.