I came early, slithering into the outside world and into safety, or so I hoped. But this was to be the first of many hopes, all dashed against the brutally sharp edges of reality.
As in all great myths, my birth was accompanied by a prophecy. I, it seemed, would be the death of my father. How this was to come about no one could say. But the prophecy was there, it escaped from the mouth of Simple Simon, the old gardener at the Botanic Gardens in Adelaide where my mother often went to sit in her lunch hour.
On this particular day she was waiting to meet my father. He was late and the pregnant girl felt a persistent nagging worry. There was something big hovering around the edges of things, a sense that life had woken up that morning slightly askew. Nothing she could put her finger on, but it was enough to make her nervous. And then there were the contradictions: worry that he would come, worry that he wouldn’t. Fear and love tugging her between them until all she could feel was a tearing anxiety. You see, my father was a strong willed man, older than her, but still too young he said, to be tied down like this. He would have walked away but he was snared by his desire for my mother. She was beautiful and fragile and needy, easy to bully but also detached in a way that he could never put a finger on. This detachment was what kept him there, waiting, wanting her to surrender completely.
It was summer but there was an unexpected chill in the air. The wind was a fresh south easterly, not the usual hot northerly that stirred up dust and discomforts, and the sky was clear enough to make everyone’s heart lift. Even my mother’s, the seventeen-year-old girl with the rounded belly who sat on a bench chewing a deviled-egg sandwich and watching Simon methodically plant a row of violets, a flurry of chattering birds surrounding him.
When a magpie greedily pecked Simon’s finger, perhaps thinking it a fat juicy worm, my mother forgot her troubles for a moment and laughed. Simon looked up, directly at her, and her laughter quickly turned into a shudder. Where one eye should have been there was a socket, dark and deep. One eye looking out, the other inwards perhaps this was the secret of his second sight. Or then again, it might have been the snakebite all those years ago which left him hovering between life and death for weeks on end. When he finally woke he knew things other people didn’t, but he had forgotten how to live in this world. No one knew how old Simple Simon was or how long he’d been working in the Botanic Gardens. He was a fixture, like the giant oak under which my mother sat.
Simon stood up straight, wincing as he stretched, one hand massaging the small of his back, the other leaning on his spade. ‘Ah,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That one will be the death of her father.’ Wincing again at the creaking in his swollen joints, he walked over to my mother and poked his finger into her tight belly. ‘Mark my words, the death of him.’ While she sat staring at him, open-mouthed, he went back to his planting, still shaking his head, but with a gleam in his eye. .
At that moment I moved. Well, bounced really. Did a somersault in a small space, causing my mother to double over in pain and think her time had come. It hadn’t. I wasn’t going anywhere. Safety, I thought, lay in the warm fluids that contained me. And I didn’t want to kill anyone, especially my own father, even though I wasn’t exactly fond of him. There’d been words already, white knuckles and fists, sending me curling up into a tighter self-protective ball. My father didn’t love me. Even then I knew that. And he didn’t love my mother. Like me, she stood between him and his plans. He wanted only to conquer her, in the same way he planned to conquer the world. You see, my father had big ideas swirling inside his head. Even then he loved power more than people. Even then he would let nothing stand in his way.
My mother loved my father but for all the wrong reasons. Love, hate and fear were all bound up together for her. She was young and weak and couldn’t distinguish between these things. She wanted me and she didn’t. She was afraid. It’s not unusual. And Simon’s prophecy had filled her throat with the burning need to tell. So when my father arrived a few minutes later, she laughed a kind of brittle nervous laugh and repeated what Simon had said. It was a big mistake, because more than anything my father wanted to live. He was a rational man, or so he claimed, but underneath that rationality lay a deep-rooted superstition. Underneath everything, he knew the power of shadow.
At first he tried to laugh it off but my mother could see the discomfort in his eyes and the tension in his fingers, already bunching up into fists.
‘You should have got rid of it,’ he hissed. ‘I told you.’ Then he hit my mother hard in the belly, the shock and pain spreading through her thin skin and into me.
At that moment I decided it was safer out than in. I fled, bursting the bag that contained me, sending the warm liquid pouring down my mother’s legs, soaking her pants and forming a puddle on the ground under where she sat, her heart beating in terror from the attack, her breath coming in quick panting bursts. Her fear spread quickly into me. In a panic I bounced my head again and again, pushing at her uterus, sending out waves of contractions. She ran, out of the gardens and onto the footpath, winding her way through other pedestrians, doubling over with the pain as another contraction hit, then running again, away from him, away from the agony that was me and that was tearing her neatly down the middle.
It was lunch hour in the city and there were lots of people about. She could see the concern in their eyes but her terror didn’t allow her to respond. Like a panicked horse she bolted, not noticing where she was. It took a Don’t Walk sign to bring her to her senses. Perhaps it was some instinct for survival, or the need to protect me. Perhaps it was fate, for the prophecy had been written in the stars and spoken aloud by Simple Simon, setting it in motion. Or perhaps someone reached out their hand and grabbed her arm or dress, yanking her to a halt. It could have been any of these things that made her stop, only a half-second away from the truck that muscled across the intersection, dangerously close to the kerb, making everyone step back and brushing the wind through her hair just as my head burst free of the birth canal, only to find itself imprisoned in her underpants as she slid, moaning, to the ground, hands reaching out to support her. And all the time my father stood back in the crowd, watching me emerge and wanting to stamp the life out of me but unable to come forward. Yet.
He was biding his time. My father wasn’t an evil man but he had already done wrong, and this deed had set in motion others. Then it was only a matter of time, as the prophecy ate away at him, turning him into its slave. Perhaps the seeds of madness had already been planted deep in his heart, in this life or another. Or perhaps they were sown later; I am not sure, for it is hard to see the beginnings of things.
People always say that children can’t remember. That babies have no language and therefore no memories. That an abandoned baby can’t be traumatised. They are wrong. There are many ways of knowing. The memories we carry in our consciousness are not the only ones. There are others, ones we can’t relate in words, and yet their scar tissue builds up so that we live every day of our lives in reaction to them. I have learned first hand that we carry memory in our cells. Unresolved trauma acts like a cancer, scarring, mutating, warping our cells until they become sick. Remembering is implicit in the decision to enter the labyrinth, to look inside ourselves, at our wounds and our carefully buried strengths. It’s there in the patterns we identify in our lives. And there too in the truths we discover and recognise as having always known. I know these things because I have looked deeply into myself and seen what needed seeing.
I was born in Adelaide on January 2nd 1989. From the beginning, life for me was a serious matter of survival, but it was also something I did not relish at all. There is a contradiction in this, I know, and one that tugged me this way and that, making me strong, yet fearful; determined, yet too ready to give up. A contradiction that for many years trapped me in a half-life, a twilight world of muted colours. A prison I didn’t even know I was in until I made my escape.
I entered this world wearing my mother’s blood and carrying the marks of my father’s fist on my back. Within minutes of my birth an ambulance arrived, its siren sending my heart thumping too fast all over again. There were danger signals everywhere and I could no longer distinguish between what was safe and what was not. But I was a tiny baby, born a month early, and the hands of those men were gentle as they carried me to the relative safety of the hospital.
He tried one more time, in the hospital ward, his large hand grabbing me by the leg and swinging me up and out of the plastic crib and head first into the wall. One swing, but he hadn’t built up momentum yet. My mother’s loyalties were torn, but for that one crucial moment the hormones swilling through her body put her on my side. She screamed. Just once, but there was a tone in it, enough to bring people running. Before the next swing a nurse appeared in the doorway and, reading the madness in my father’s eyes, pressed the alarm.
Already a master of disguise, my father recovered quickly, cradling me in his arms, uttering comforting baby noises while I stared mutely up into his eyes, my heart thudding.
‘I slipped,’ he told the nurse. ‘I almost dropped her. My God, they’re so fragile.’ Then, as a nurse took her from him, ‘She’s alright, isn’t she?’
Uncertain now, the nurse looked at my mother lying there in the crisp white hospital bed, wearing a white hospital gown because there’d been no time to pack, sobbing, milk leaking from her nipples.
My mother looked at each of us in turn, seeing the threat in my father’s eyes, the bewildered fear in mine and the question in the nurse’s. Then, stony-faced, she turned away from us all. She had made a decision.
‘It was an accident,’ she said. ‘He slipped.’
But she did sign the adoption forms. To keep me safe.
Then she wrapped me tightly in a white blanket, placed me back in the plastic see-through hospital-issue crib and wheeled me into a room full of other howling cribs, setting me loose into a sea of indifference with no anchor and no oars, with only the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate by, and no lessons to help me decipher them.
On my original birth certificate there is a blank space next to Father. My mother’s name is listed as Joan Childe. My name is listed as Erica. On my second birth certificate my father’s name is listed as Richard Parsons, my mother’s as Grace Parsons My adopted parents called me Fernanda after an evangelical missionary they favoured at the time. I called myself Fern. More than anything I wanted to fly. But in order to fly, one must first be willing to fall.
This is the story of my journey, following the clues back through the twists and turns that made me into what I was, searching for the moments of definition: the overheard sentence, the intention in another’s eyes, a boy seducing a girl, a fist, a beating and a mother turning away. I had to go deep into the underworld and enter the labyrinth, with no guarantee of return, seeking the threads that I could weave into a rope thick enough to haul me out again.
In this story there are those gifted and cursed with the power of prophecy. There’s a young man haunted by the past and an old man haunted by the future. There is death and corruption and injustice. There is love and passion and hatred, all carried across lifetimes. Occasionally there is compassion. But more often, as in real life, there is fear.
I am there too. Haunted and hollow. An outline, waiting to be filled in. Poised trembling before the entrance to the labyrinth. A shadow of the self I should have been. A shadow of who I am now as I sit here looking for a beginning when there isn’t one, when there never is, because life is simply not neat, and one story hardly ever ends before another begins. Instead they span time and space, reaching back into a past that extends beyond our first breath and into a future that extends beyond our last, through a multitude of lives and tied only by the threads of souls and their patterns.
In the absence of a clear beginning I will draw an artificial line through time and begin on that stiflingly hot afternoon, in the attic room of a run-down terrace in the inner suburbs of Sydney. . .