Hidden Treasure.
Article Type: Short story
Subject: Female-male relations (Portrayals)
Love and loss (Literature) (Portrayals)
Lovesickness (Portrayals)
Female experience (Portrayals)
Female identity (Portrayals)
Satisfaction (Psychology) (Portrayals)
Author: Downing, Jane
Pub Date: 05/01/2011
Publication: Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198
Issue: Date: May, 2011 Source Volume: 37 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Hidden Treasure (Short story)
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia; Tasmania Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia; 8AUTA Tasmania
Accession Number: 268220731
Full Text: The kids, as round as grubs, stood at the edge of the excavation pit that had started outside their village a few weeks before. Samuel left one thong in the dirt like some reversed footprint as he rubbed his foot up and down his right shank reopening last night's mosquito bites. They were weeping volcanic islands of white and red in the brown sea of his skin. Ruthie leaned into her best friend and snatched at the occasional louse from the jet hair as she, without appearing to, listened to the lecture. There'd be test questions back at school later.

Catherine had thought the excursion to the archaeological dig a good idea, and so it was in theory: a hands-on history lesson, a chance to convey a little pride in their past to this group of primary school scholars in Cliff Richard and Madonna t-shirts, these inheritors of the 'luxury' western life. Catherine had arrived herself only a few weeks before and was as fresh and enthusiastic as a new bride (coming to teach on the island was as huge a commitment as to a marriage; the partner, the island, as unknowable as a groom in those first weeks). The honeymoon, however, was over. She had as many itchy bites as Samuel and missed, with an immense ache, electricity and water on tap. The hum of the generator in the school residence for one hour every evening was, she'd come to feel, her only consolation. The heat, in all contradiction to the laws of physics, took everything off the boil.

Sweat prickled down her back as the visiting archaeologist, Dr Tallis--as Catherine had introduced him to the class--moved on from holding up unrecognisable shards of pottery for view and produced bones that were unmistakably human. A jaw dropped from a skull, registering horror at its last moments (though this expression, was, she would discover, a mere artefact of the maggots and worms that had chewed up flesh, muscle and tendons, and released the bones from their tight connections). The coronal suture, like a long scar completely stitching up the globe-like skull, indicated age, the doctor explained, not a violence to the head that time had healed.

'Now your skull,' he pointed to Benjamin, who accidentally stood within range, 'has yet to harden so it wouldn't look like this.' Benjamin fingered the hardness under his matted shock of hair. 'This man was an adult,' Dr Tallis concluded, placing the skull on the lip of his excavation pit, his 'to-be-or-not-to-be' pose relinquished. He bent to pick up a long bone.

'Now what do you think this is?'

Catherine knew little anatomy, she wasn't interested and it wasn't taught at the primary level; she simply wished she could get out of the burning sun. The children fidgeted. After a bit of leading questioning, like getting blood from the bone, Catherine filled the silence. It was not the island way to speak up, and Catherine, a good teacher, thought to get things rolling, but was unscientific in her 'do you think it's a leg bone, boys and girls?' The interactive part of the lecture petered out and the archaeologist provided the identification.

It was in fact a femur, that part of the leg ('yes, a leg bone,' Catherine murmured to ward off the admonishment in the doctor's correction), that stretched from the knee up. Dr Tallis held the bone against this particular part of his own tall anatomy and, as he had clearly expected, there were gasps of awe from around him.

'They must have been giants,' Ruthie was emboldened to say.

The bone was long, immensely long, reaching from the fair knee almost to the belted waist. 'Giants,' echoed around the clearing that contained the excavated graves. 'Giants.'

Today that's the reputation of Ruthie's people. Giants. Big people, especially for the Pacific. The myth still existed that their ancestors were even more so. Catherine had once boarded a replica of a ship from the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour and banged her head on a door lintel. In comparison--well, the astonishment at the sight of these immense noble savages must have dropped more than one jaw.

'Giants.'

The excited giggling in his audience was like the wriggling of fish at the end of a line. Dr Tallis thought he had them hooked.

'But see,' he said, perhaps mistaking the class for one back at the University in Australia, 'the femur as a bone is not from the top of our leg to our knee. Yes, the femur joins at the tibia, the two connected by the patella but ...' he went on at length explaining the connections of bone to bone, the skeletal structure they all had within them no matter the colour of their skin. The ancient bone still hung as a diagram beside his own as he spoke but the fish had slipped the hook. This bone wasn't half as exciting as a skull. Long, knobbly at each end, it was something the village mongrel chewed on given half a chance. The kids, native to the heat, felt it nonetheless and eyed the shade of the jungle path. The academic droned on, a daytime mosquito. 'However, it, the femur, if we were to take an x-ray, goes beyond the top of what we can see of our leg, right up into the pelvis.' He indicated his pelvis beneath his muddy khaki shorts. Catherine tried not to look too intently at that general region of his anatomy. The guest lecturer concluded: 'My femur would be just as long as this bone.'

A sad fact of teaching is that the learning rarely matches what is intended. Catherine at the front, Indian file the class snaked its way back to the road. Spider webs as thick as linen had been cleared from the path on their inward journey, but remnants hung like fishermen's nets to the left and right. Giant spiders too. And the butterflies coming from the inland taro patches--giant butterflies too. The sun fingered its way through the thick canopy of leaves and webs, a Godly light bestowing munificence on this blessed island.

'We were giants, we were giants,' the children whispered and giggled as they climbed into the back of the Mayor's pick-up truck. Catherine remembered something different again from the trip. It was not love at first sight but the image of Dr Tallis, obscured by his broad hat, standing, king of all he surveyed in the bottom of his pit, remained with Catherine. It was a small island. Of course they met again.

His face was broad, his forehead high, and his chin unknowable beneath a thick nest of a beard. His lips were generous between the beard and the moustache, the hair of both as fair as that left on his head and sowed across the pale stretch of his arms, legs and chest. On the beach he wore only over-large board shorts. Freckles protected his shoulders.

Catherine enumerated all these features to herself. Describing him, to know him. Occupying her mind so it would not stray too far. She was lying on the north beach in her one-piece swimmers, as near-naked as was Dr Tallis, 'call me Julian,' her limbs salt encrusted and languorous from a morning snorkelling. He was lining the shell collection of the morning down her length, starting at the dip of her collarbone, and then like buttons, down her chest, between her breasts, down her flattened stomach, the one briefly balanced on the hammock of cloth across her bellybutton getting up and running away. Pink and white, striped and spiral, they rested, and he, whom she now called Julian, ran his finger between them. Casually. Leaned slightly forward, his body shadowing hers. Catherine concentrated on the abrading texture of the sand beneath her thighs to still her heart and the dancing of the shells above it. Sand, rough as--well, as sandpaper. Just fish shit really. The fish ate the coral and passed it out as sand grains. Think of it, concentrate. Fish shit.

'I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid,' Catherine murmured, eyes half-closed, all her attention, despite her ploys, on the slow progress of his index finger between the shells.

'Everyone says that,' Julian told her. 'You can't have been serious. It wasn't that difficult.'

'Maybe we weren't as lucky as you.'

'I am lucky,' he said as he leant further in and his mouth closed over hers.

It was as simple as that. Shy Catherine, self-conscious Catherine lay there mesmerised beneath the gaze of this stranger. The dance of the stoats, she thought, imagining herself like the prey, utterly bamboozled by the predator stoat's elaborate ballet. Though why she'd think of such a weasely creature as a stoat, and of herself as prey... Catherine was not prey. She was clearly lucky; the type of luck that begins to feel like fate.

The previous year fell into the past where it belonged. Her father's death, the growing feeling that life should be something more, then the biting homesickness when she came to the island. Now it all made sense. Her whole life, her fleeting prettiness in the last years of her twenties, the blueness of her eyes: all evolved for just this purpose, for this moment. The school excursion in the horrible heat. All a ploy to get her to this place at this time to meet this man. Dr Julian Tallis. She'd whisper the name at night, not believing her luck. Trusting to fate.

Soon enough her nights were not spent alone, and the whisper of his name fell like a balm into his ears. Sometimes she felt she was floating on a huge lake of contentment, though the actual voluptuousness of the dark hours was indescribable for that is where words always fail: when they come to bliss.

When she thought back on this period later, there were of course a lot of words, but for now she lived in the moment (as the cliche went), for wasn't all love cliched.

The house itself, Julian's house, was the place of the moment. It had no outward pretension to the rose-covered cottage of romantic destiny. It was a solid cement cube, painted blue, with a flat tin roof that amplified the abundant rain. They couldn't hear themselves talk when the rain came, and Julian talked a lot. He was a walking vein of gold when it came to facts and information; it'd take Catherine forever to mine it. Furnishings were sparse. The house seemed to encompass emptiness save for those things to do with his profession. There were two cane chairs, a huge table (one corner could be cleared when it came to meals) and boxes of bones, pottery shards, the findings of excavated graves and middens, and tools for such excavating activities. The fridge hummed continuously since Julian, or more precisely the University, had the resources to keep a generator going. The quaint glamour of kerosene lamps and candles was not missed as Catherine's visits to the blue house lengthened. She got used to the contents of the freezer. The usual: fish fingers, frozen yoghurt, an articulated centipede close to a foot long. The latter had appeared through the back door one evening. Julian had immobilised it with a length of sticky tape until he'd worked out a way to safely end its life for it was a fine specimen to collect. Exposure had sprung to mind. It was how he executed the inhabitants of the beautiful cowrie, trochus and trumpet shells that also toppled forward whenever Catherine opened the freezer door.

Shells provided the only altercation of that time, and that was probably too strong a word. The shells in the freezer were part of it, Catherine's ruining of the entire island economy the rest. She'd be there after school when giggling tribes of children--younger than her own class--would materialise with secret beauties to sell. A leopard spotted cowrie would appear from the folds of a six year-old's skirts. 'One pa'anga,' the child's minutely older brother would announce. A little light haggling and she'd hand over a clutched handful of senit and everyone was happy. She'd have an exquisite cowrie or spider shell or some such (and many more as the weeks went by) at a fraction of the price in Hawaii or Papeete, and the kids had more than enough for an equally-sized handful of candy. The line of entrepreneurs at the door lengthened. Catherine's shell collection was something of which she was proud. But Julian was insistent about the great harm she was doing. She was paying far too much; shells were everywhere on the reef. He picked his up for free.

'But they clean them, pull out the animal, all the yucky part.'

'It is not "yucky"', he claimed--not by his death-by-exposure-in the-freezer and crochet-hook-at-the-kitchen-table method. He gave her a particularly lovely nautilus for free, a sweeping spiral as fine as bone china and marked like a tiger; fine and bold like she wanted to be. And the children gradually got the message and went back to life uncluttered by money. She told herself she'd done wrong in rousing their expectations.

Catherine never confessed, during the 'altercations', to her queasiness over Julian's method of eviction for the shells' owners. She wasn't one for eating oysters either. Julian had no qualms. This was the man who pondered the arrival of rats on the island, a migration after the graves and middens he was studying, and set out in a dinghy the next day and tossed rats into the ocean to see how far they could swim. Not very far as it happened. So they must have originally come with people. QED.

Clever, Catherine admired. Bold, self-assured, brilliant. When the pigs became a problem he put all these qualities--qualities shy, anxious Catherine could never claim for herself--into finding a solution. So clever, she marvelled.

His neighbour, their neighbour she'd found herself thinking, had ousted the marauding pigs from her garden by setting up an electrified wire around the perimeter. Pigs were a fact of life: more valuable than money when it came to displaying wealth and status, of which there was a bit in the neighbourhood (other status symbols being gardens worth protecting and electricity to electrify wires). Pigs, though this potent fact of life, could also be a nuisance. Fortunately they were smart and learned quickly to avoid Dr Heidi Martin's garden. Julian's plot had less beauty to protect, being but a garden of trees: palms, mostly upright like sentinels, some, windswept, so laid back that to climb and harvest them would be like walking a plank; a few papaya, the wild fruit hanging low like the breasts of a grandmother; the banana grove by the bedroom window that Catherine watched in the first light of each morning. New leaves appeared, in rhythm with her life, at first furled like a flag on a pole, then slowly, incrementally, carefully unsheathed and unfolding over days. One morning she was watching at the moment a leaf sprung open, perfect (huge lustrous green). Within days it was shredded like the cartoon caricature, the reality of all mature banana leaves. But she remembered it fresh and new.

The trees were not Julian's concern, however, when the pigs, ousted from the Eden next door, nosed and snuffled his way. He couldn't have them digging around. But he didn't have the budget for the elaborate system next door. So, ingeniously, there was no other word for it Catherine decided, he ran a line of thick string around the block stoutly staked at each corner and at structurally convenient intervals. It looked exactly like Heidi's electrified barrier. The pigs were only the second most intelligent species on earth (behind dolphins or humans?) and moved their hairy hides elsewhere.

Julian and Catherine would sit behind their all-protecting length of string as the evenings cooled off. One night the moon was so bright that the sun umbrella cast a shadow over them. Then as the weeks flew, the moon waned and the stars moved centre stage. Julian pointed out the constellations and gave impromptu lectures on history, astronomy, myth. Catherine could only remember Scorpios, the only constellation she thought in any way resembled its namesake. Mars (glowing faintly but discernably red) was the heart of the scorpion.

Even with the passing of these weeks, his kisses remained electric, his lips connected up to some invisible electrifying wire.

Which very inadequately, because words can never scale the heights, stood in for a description of those indescribable moments of bliss.

Rumours were going round however. Catherine heard them from their neighbour.

'Your boyfriend is under suspicion,' Dr Heidi said. She was a doctor at the hospital, an older woman, no-nonsense, but still a knot within the loop of gossip. 'They say he's been taking treasure from the graves at that excavation. They say he's buried it in his backyard. They're pretty miffed. Any treasure belongs to them. It's their heritage.'

Dr Julian Tallis a modern-day Lord Elgin, carting off the Parthenon marbles? Catherine laughed with Julian that night. Nevertheless the rumours circulated freely and resentment flourished so that the little shell-children crossed to the opposite side of the rutted road when Catherine walked to school, and Beti was not nearly so helpful in the Morn & Pop store at the end of the road.

Bringing his ingenuity to bear, Julian found the perfect solution. He invited the chief of the island (the chief of 'they say' rumours) home to his blue cement box to see the treasures for himself.

The invitation was formal and Julian and Catherine had two days to prepare. Julian lined up the best examples of pot shards, adzes, treasures from the middens, and a number of intact bones were brought over from the site though he, thankfully, more normally kept the bulk of the skeletal remains at a humerus's length (his joke, which she only found humorous after a mini-lesson on bones). Catherine meanwhile got in extra supplies of cabin cracker biscuits and persuaded Beti to provide a couple of dozen donuts on the day. Warmed and filled with peanut butter they spoke of welcome and were an absolute favourite at all school functions. She counted the empty coffee jars across the window sill and calculated they had enough to serve coffee to everyone (cups were all but unknown on the island), given that the chief was sure to bring a royal entourage.

Sure enough, on the specified day, only an hour and a bit after the specified time, the chief drove down their rutted road, passed the neighbour's pristine pig-free, hibiscus glowing garden and swung into their pebble drive. There was a group of four men in the back tray of the pick-up. Catherine recognised the vehicle; it was the Mayor's Toyota with its rusty bodywork, the same the teachers used for school excursions. For the chief was also the Mayor, a generous leader, known for his firmness when it was necessary, and famous for the notice he'd put on the jail door the year before. There was little money in the coffers for full-time prison staff, or for three meals a day for the inmates. Family must, as in all things, provide. The prisoners went home for meals and punctuality was, as always, a problem. The notice firmly stated: 'Any prisoner not in by 9 pm will be locked out for the night.' Problem solved. And now the two ingenious men faced each other at a front door.

Julian was a tall man. The chief was taller. And a lot broader: an imposing figure if not quite the giant of his mythical ancestry. He had a spare scatter of hair left and wore an American golfing hat that now shadowed his liquid eyes, each a pool of brown light. Measles as a child had left his cheeks and nose scarred, pockmarks as much a part of him as the moon's craters were of it. As a child he was probably teased; now the blemishes added to the imposingness of his features. He'd been saying around the village, that Julian might 'have more degrees than a bucket of hot water but I'll not have this whitey stealing our treasures.' Bellicose barking notwithstanding, he was a chief from a long line and a Mayor with a huge majority, and he knew the value of face-to-face courtesy. He and his council 'came in' as Julian invited. Two kept on their much-favoured reflector sunglasses, all shifted their eyes shrewdly around the sparsely furnished space before sitting cross-legged on the woven mat in the centre of the room, their bellies spilling over into their laps. Catherine served coffee and steaming, sticky donuts and sat back against the wall.

Formalities over, Julian stepped into the limelight, host and impresario. Stars are static bodies until they are viewed through the earth's atmosphere; Julian too twinkled once in the orbit of an audience. He was not one star but a whole constellation as he presented his treasures, explaining how much burials and middens could tell about a culture where there were no written words, how the evidence of this Lapita culture could confirm oral traditions, or chart the evolution of the stories from one generation to the next, and so on, and so forth. The donuts were finished and Julian was still so forthing, acting--indeed believing--that these nondescript bits of this and that, 'the bones and whatnot,' towards which the chief gestured, were treasures of the highest value.

'Treasures that belong to your past, and now to your community,' Julian assured the chief and his men.

Then they came to an impasse.

'That is all good and whatnot,' the chief inserted into the silence, eyes downcast to allow the challenge in his next words, 'and yet Dr Tallis, what of the box you have buried in the garden?'

Dr Tallis rose triumphant.

'You have found me out!' he exclaimed, casting amused looks at Catherine. He was like a father leading his children down the stairs to the Christmas tree early on Christmas morning.

'Come then, come,' he burbled, leading them out the back door. A spade stood ready against a sentinel palm and he took it up eagerly.

Treasure is everywhere. Children search for bottle tops along the path, or marvel at the glittery complexity of smashed reflector lights after an accident, pocketing shards as if diamonds. The things people will steal, seeing a value others would walk right by. Fossilised dinosaur tracks, carved out, carried off; a loved one's self esteem, chipped at, removed. Stolen away.

It took only minutes to retrieve this treasure from its pit. The contents announced their presence before the box was completely disinterred or the lid off. The chief and four stepped backwards. Catherine had stayed well back. She'd known what to expect. The smell was a malicious assault.

'Excuse me for the atrocious smell,' Julian apologised belatedly. He bent to pry the lid off his prized rotting box.

The chief had to be coaxed forward to have a look inside the large flat box. Carefully labelled inside was a collection of fish in various states of putrification. A no longer recognisable bonito huddled in one corner, there were catfish, eel, reef fish of many (when they yet lived) hues, a leggy starfish, and across one long edge, the remains of a white-tip reef shark.

'It's all in the bones,' the archaeologist explained to the captivated, mesmerised audience. 'So many bones come out of middens, but they have no labels. If we're to know what your ancestors ate, what rubbish and leftovers they threw in their middens, we have to identify the bones. A big picture from tiny white fish bones. Once I have my collection complete I can compare all the finds and make confident identifications.'

Which is how he knew about the late arrival of the rats. A complete (fully rotted) rat skeleton was in a box under the kitchen sink. No bones of that type had turned up in any of his excavation holes.

All five island men were laughing as they clambered back into and onto the pick-up, hefting pork chop legs over the backboard, hoisting pendulous well-fed bellies up. The joke was on them, but they loved it. A rotting box! Such buried treasure. Wait till they told everyone and shared the fun.

Julian carefully laid layers of dirt back over his box. 'My hero,' Catherine teased once the stench had been swallowed by the soil. The story would last. He'd be a legend.

A legend? 'Yes, the key to my life's map,' Catherine told herself, though she did also laugh at herself for such sentimentality. Even she, deep in hero-worship and the first gusts of lust, could see this phase could not last. But nothing to fear: they were floating on that huge lake of contentment.

The chief sent the head of a huge groper the next day. Freshly caught, rare, but a possible food source in the old days all the same.

The head was as big as a plate. Catherine admired the translucence of the dead eyes, watched the rainbow sheen of the scales shift and dance as Julian prepared it for the rotting box.

He was at a very busy stage of the excavation and the little house was stacked with more and more boxes as he also prepared artefacts for their return to Australia for further research. He had amongst his

papers a special permit for the importation of human remains. One of the perks of the job, he told her, was seeing the Quarantine Officers' faces when he announced he had human skeletons to declare. Travellers in the line behind him tended to back away.

Catherine helped him order bones after school. There was a therapeutic monotony to it, a jigsaw puzzle intensity. Julian knelt opposite with calipers and a thirty metre recoiling measuring tape as he identified and labelled. Measuring a pelvis, writing down female, examining the eye ridges of a skull, writing down male. Several piles of remains were intact skeletons, all there. These too he measured before designating.

'Why don't you just count the ribs?' Catherine asked with no inkling of the depth of her naivety.

Julian was at first bemused. At first he thought she was joking. At second he needed clarification to verify his ears' veracity. 'What?'

'Well, if woman was made of man's rib, the males would have an odd number ...' Catherine hesitated.

'You don't believe ...?' interrupted Julian. She'd never seen his aghast expression before.

'Of course not!' Catherine blushed. 'But we've discussed oral histories and myths--how even the most nonsensical stories usually have a root in the real world. The explanatory function of myths.' Catherine thought she was sounding lucid. Julian's aghast look was fading. 'I thought the Biblical story must have started because of an obvious difference in male and female skeletons ... the number of ribs ... so Adam ... and Eve.' She spluttered to this finish.

Julian was laughing with the inhibition of a five year-old. 'You've been at that Catholic school too long,' he managed to get out.

So Catherine was already feeling very small when at dinner, over the rice and bully beef, he made his own unexpected statement.

'My girlfriend arrives on Monday,' he said.

Catherine put her fork down. The tines hit the plate and sang quietly. 'Girlfriend?' What was this word? It did not seem to connect with anything concrete in her brain. It was the lost sensation she had when trying to use the local language. Definitions, translations eluded her. 'Girlfriend?'

Julian clarified. 'Well, my fiancee.' As if that would aid Catherine's comprehension. 'She's looking forward to seeing the island. You'll like her. She's great company.'

That's when words really failed. It is not only bliss that is indescribable. Anguish too has no parameters, no quick labels.

The words failed at that moment to the extent that Catherine could not even identify her own pain. Into the vacuum many extraneous words tumbled, pointless identifications. The cloying smell of the mango that would finish the meal, my just desert, the earthy, unavoidable smell of the skeletons that lay in the room, mute witnesses, the ant that climbed the wall opposite with a grain of rice precariously balanced in its mandibles, the grain like an ant's egg in fact. The annoying call of the itchy bites around her ankles, the slight incipient island belly edging over Julian's lavalava, the way he chewed too far forward in his mouth, the shrill of Linda Ronstadt on the radio, the ... Looking back, she remembered all this flitting around the edges of a heavy numbness: the recognition of the anguish came later. Meanwhile he was acting as if this was a perfectly normal conversation, a wholly sophisticated and unremarkable circumstance. For weeks Catherine had hung on his every word, it was not a chord she could sever so quickly--so now she would hang on these new words, swing and hang until she was dead?

Day gave way to night without the usual sunset clause. He made love to her in the dark as usual (the hypocrisy of words: had he ever made love?) Kindly, tenderly, thoughtfully, wordlessly. He fell asleep, an untroubled fall into oblivion while Catherine's mind ground through her disbelief, turning it round and around, reflecting the past, the present, the future off its shiny surface. She crept out to the toilet and sat in the muggy heat denying herself the release of hitting her head again and again against the cement wall. She already had a headache that felt as though a coconut grinder was gouging out the flesh in her skull and shredding all coherence, all sanity.

It was her fault of course. She'd expected too much. 'I am undeserving,' she thought. Julian's certainty that this betrayal was not a betrayal had convinced her all evening: a surface to her numbness, a sheen on the dead groper fish of whatever they'd had in the past weeks. 'It's okay, okay, okay,' she moaned softly from the toilet seat.

The gecko who lived on the outside of the bathroom window briefly impersonated a frill-necked lizard as it caught a fluttering moth. The moth's wings spasmed around the gecko's mouth before it was swallowed in one, two, three gulps. A trace of the frill was visible in the little lizard's translucent belly. The gecko moved its suction capped feet nonchalantly up to the top of the fly wire and waited for its next prey.

When did she decide this betrayal was not okay? By the time she had her own doctorate, in education, Catherine was prefacing the story with, 'I just wanted revenge. Is that so wrong?'

At the time there was no just to it. She was too confused for any clear thinking. Con-fused. Up until that night she'd thought they were simply fused. Dr Julian Tallis and Catherine Brown. She'd thought fate (not luck) would hold them fast. Then her thoughts had to be turned against this fusion. Clearly: con-fusion. No. Clearly nothing. Grief and insanity are siblings if not Siamese twins.

After school she should have asked herself, where is home? Instead Catherine's feet automatically turned toward Julian's house, not her own small apartment in the school residence. She stood outside the front garden, on the rutted road, separated from his territory by a flimsy piece of taut string. Two pigs joined her for company. They, the three of them, stood in the merciless sun. The pigs snuffled black snouts about her feet.

'You silly buggers,' she told them, nudging one jowly head off with her thonged foot, briefly wondering if pigs too got skin cancer, then refocusing away from their scabby, pink and flaky hides.

The banana grove that framed the bedroom window rustled in the slight breeze. What was this girlfriend like, this woman who would be looking at the leaves unfolding and the fruit ripening on Monday? The pigs, supremely, sublimely uninterested, turned to shamble off to easier pickings.

Catherine didn't know why, at the time, she called them back. 'Hey ho,' she shouted. It was a random act of kindness to animals dumber than herself (of which there could not be, she knew, at this stage, many). 'Look you silly sausage,' she cajoled the largest sow as she manhandled her with shoves and shouldering into Julian's garden. The pig squealed shortly as the string loomed and cocked her head thoughtfully when a zap of electricity failed to jolt her wildly beating heart. All four trotters crossed the psychological barrier. Her friend wasted no time in following.

'You clever girls,' Catherine told them as their paintbrush tails wagged delightedly into the garden. Maybe they should be raised from second place in the most intelligent animal stakes after all. She walked away.

And she never went back. It was a small island but with a little effort she was able to avoid the visiting archaeologist and his horsy anthropologist fiancee (a leggy, whinnying kind of woman; horse being down the scale from pig).

Catherine had ears with which to hear though. The story of the rotting boxes changed quickly. The golden legend tarnished in the humidity. The poor doctor's treasures hidden in his garden had been discovered and stolen. Two guilty looking pigs with superior digging skills were named culprits. They must have snuffled out the recently buried groper, common wisdom went, then 'gone for it', as the children liked to say. The story was edited and elaborated and told in many voices. The narratives all agreed: the putrid offerings would have been bliss for the criminal pigs.

Months of work were lost in one afternoon and there was not enough time to start again in this season of digs. The chief and his friends, maybe never really understanding how they'd been patronised on their visit, nevertheless found Dr Tallis a large enough butt for their jokes. Ah, the insubstantiality of treasure they wisely surmised.

There are things of great and lasting value of course. Real treasures. Things that should not become jokes. Those precious things that can be taken away and have to be fought hard for to grapple back. Once Julian's shifting hazel-blue eyes were not linked into hers, Catherine was able to rebuild her sense of self as someone who deserved honesty and honest caring. For a while she carried a torch (a continuation of the what-if-I'd-done-this, or that, if I hadn't made the Adam's rib remark, had kissed more passionately, listened more adoringly). But the batteries of the torch ran out. For a while she convinced herself that at least the pain told her she was alive: bollocks to that too. For a while she denied love's existence, then upgraded it to an intestinal irritation, then fell in love again, and out.

And then she found the hidden treasures in storytelling. Her friends dug up their own rotting boxes and over champagne they'd fling the bones of their amorous pasts into the air with glee.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.


 
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