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Sport 12: Autumn 1994

Lynn Davidson — The Nurturing Instinct

page 141

Lynn Davidson

The Nurturing Instinct

I am lying under a bottle-green rotating washing line on a thin strip of concrete that divides the washing line and the silverbeet from the lawn with swings and a hut swamped with ivy. Under my body ants hurry along, their segmented bodies making and remaking letters, words, sentences as they cross and recross each other in their work frenzy.

I am ten years old and I no longer stand naked under the hose in summer watching the grey sand slide down to my feet and settle amongst my toes.

My hands grip the cold metal with its tiny blisters of rust and my body flies back from my hands. My sister is pushing me around and around on the washing line; the grass and the thin strip on concrete sweep away from me time and time again. I call my voice out from the arc that my body is making: ‘Stop! stop now, I want to get off!’

My sister laughs and has to have one more round. Far from being delicate and flying like one of Dad’s shirts, flicking its white sleeves and trunk to the touch of the wind, or winding itself over the wires like an acrobat, I am enormously heavy, my hands and shoulders are hot with tiredness and pain. The ground has slammed up to me, kicking the breath out of my body. My sister runs over to me, full of concern, and excitement. ‘It’s okay!’ she shouts, ‘you’ve just lost your breath.’

But I know it’s not lost. I know it’s hovering just outside my mouth, if I could just move closer and join up with it again. I feel panic rising, my breath no longer pushing my blood around.

The lamb has my yellow belt around its neck, but it doesn’t want to come with us. It stands on its shaky legs and pulls back, its pink mouth open.

‘It’s crying because it’s lost its mother,’ you say importantly. We drag on its small body and it tap dances reluctantly towards us then pulls back again.

‘Its looking for its mummy’s tit!’ you cry.

My mother is on the phone ringing the farmer. We are outside clustered around the lamb.

‘It’s an orphan!’ I shout to my mother.

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‘It was lost,’ you add, tears streaming down your face.

‘It will die if you take it back!’

But my mother loads the lamb into the back of the car regardless of us and our crying and takes it back to the farmer. The lamb lurches forward and back on its pointed feet, slipping on the smooth car seat. We watch it go with tears on our faces.

As my mother passed us with an armload of washing or a fistful of silverbeet, we would be burying a dead bird, still warm and floppy, or opening the belly of a pregnant slater to see all the babies pour out. She saw three little girls sitting cross-legged in a circle with their heads bent towards something tiny in their hands.

My sister’s friend had a baby at sixteen. She sat on the double bed in the bach where she and her boyfriend lived, spilling milk through every layer of her clothes. And bleeding privately onto a thick pad, blood from the stitches where she had been cut.

She smoked, turning her head away from the baby whose head was cradled in her other hand as it learned to suckle. There was a bassinet with white netting looped over it and tied with satin bows standing in the middle of the small room.

In one of the dark recesses of the bach a squirming baby mouse waited to be found. My sister’s friend made a bed for it on torn-up newspapers and put it by the fire. She squeezed some of the milk out of her breasts onto a cotton wool ball and then dropped the milk from the cotton wool into the mouse’s mouth. While my sister and her friend tended the mouse I was allowed to hold the baby. Its warm head tipped into the curve of my neck and shoulder, and under his clothes his ribs spread like a fragile fan around his heart.

A few days later, when we visited the bach again we asked about the mouse. ‘It was a rat,’ she said matter-of-factly as she changed the baby’s nappy. She was expert now at catching the floating red legs by the ankles and quickly lifting the bottom half of the baby and slipping a mysteriously folded nappy under it.

‘I let it go,’ she said. We knew then that the conversation was over, but I wondered where the rat was. It would be dead of course, curled up into itself like a leaf.

The sun came in the small window of the bach and lay between my sister page 143 and her friend. While they talked they put their cups of tea, their cigarettes and their hands into the sun.

It is cold and still like the inside of a church on a summer’s day. Each breath feels clean, like swallowing the music of bells. We are going down the gully. Holding on to the arms of flax and the golden toitoi, heading for the stream. Each step crushes out the smell of fennel; it winds into our clothes and hair. Suddenly I step too heavily, forgetting that I am walking above the ground, and one of my legs pushes through the canopy of green into the dank black undergrowth. I quickly try to pull that leg up, but I am heavy, in my panic, and my other leg pushes through. For a moment I am locked in a slimy black underworld with an ice-blue sky arching overhead. My heart is played like bongo drums with the fast hands of fear. I lean forward, into the slope of the hill resting gently on the green canopy with my hands and pull myself clear, pushing back a little at the shoulders so as not to roll down into the stream.

The shark with its angry mouth clamped shut lay belly-up on the sand. The fisherman cut the belly from top to bottom and pulled the flaps apart to peer inside. He looked like someone peering through curtains from a lighted room into the night. He didn’t recognise anything. But I did. Over his shoulder I saw, low down in the belly, two tiny sharks flickering like a heart beat, like breathing. And they were still neatly supermarket-wrapped in their sac. He laughed, but carefully lifted them out of their mother’s body for me. I held an ice-cream container filled with seawater under his red hands and he dropped the sharks in. Their little mouths were bad-tempered like their mother’s.

‘What will you do with them if they live?’ he asked. ‘Will you put them back in the sea?’

No, no. Never would I be responsible for slipping two more grey sharks into the sea.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered. Then, more confidently, ‘They won’t live.’

They weren’t in a hurry to die. Day after day I would check on them in the laundry, and they would be alive, flicking minutes off their bodies like fleas.

I started playing at school, on the big field instead of on the beach. I played bulltag and skipping and made forts in the pinetrees. I wore my shorts under my dress to school, and I ran and ran, exhilarated to feel my muscles working for me. And under my bare feet was grass and earth, I page 144 wondered how I could ever have preferred sand and water.

One day we played softball and my dress was used as first base, and I hit a home run. While I waited in the queue for my next bat I stuck blades of grass into little holes in the earth, hoping to catch butcher boys. At 4.30 the magpies would start to get scratchy and sweep down towards us, calling out for us to go home, to leave the feet of their tall dark homes, leave them to get on with whatever they did in the resinous dark of their forest.

The sharks stayed alive. They slipped into my dreams, gliding around as if practising for the real sea. I woke up each morning to see them flicker out of the window, fin to fin.

When I went to check on them they would open and close their angry mouths at me, and I though of the mouth of their mother, whose head and guts the sea had pulled roughly back into a careless embrace. And I could still see the dead glazed gaze of her eyes.

After ten days the sharks died. They turned transparent and still. I carried their plastic womb carefully down to the sea’s edge and turned it upside down, then turned away, not wanting to see what the sea did with them. The unease that had curled through my body like a constantly falling streamer settled. My mother was relieved, and I, who had pretended that I wanted them to live, now pretended I was sad that they had died.

I was ten years old.

I am ten years old. In winter I balance on logs in the pushing sucking surf, while a little way out sharks sneer and stingrays smile, rubbing fin to fin. And seaweed grows as tall as trees and beckons with little fingers on top of the water. Under our feet the sea sucks hollow pockets, our feet disappear into soft black mouths.