Short story: Children Underfoot, by Danny Bultitude

"Louise walks to the edge of the pond...Deliberately, apathetically, she undresses, dropping her clothes on the mildewed earth": a short story by Porirua writer Danny Bultitude.

Looking out at her childhood home, slick with a recent coat of paint or a cloudsworth of rain, Louise feels nothing. Little has changed in the decade since she lived here, but the dry, concrete image in her head, in the photos on Mum’s computer, has drowned. The house inspires no memory, no emotion, no greater understanding of the woman who looks upon it. When driving through her old neighbourhood, under the self-same sky, she also felt nothing save the incessant strain of an intruder.

Of course, her destination is beyond the end of the cul-de-sac, behind the trees and houses, within malnourished native bush. The only destination that sparks nostalgia, that sparks a sense of who she once was. Memory guides Louise, nudging her through the gap in Laura’s fence, past the disused greenhouse, towards the embankment.

Uneven staircase worn into the dirt by child’s shoes, her adult feet too large to fit the grooves now. Just thirteen years ago, Louise knew each footfall by heart and could follow the barely-there track without even looking. Everyone at school did. Now she trips, stumbles over the earth, slow-moving and unbalanced. Another entire generation has learnt to use it since her, hopefully to better purpose.

The slipshod track crosses a bank fallen away from the suburban fencelines. Some were too tall, built to confine bouncy labradors and hyperactive kids, but others provided ample chances for voyeurs. Boys cowered beneath one particular fence to peek at this widow who occasionally walked past her windows shirtless. One time, the widow came outside to chuck garden detritus over the fence with a trowel, hitting Zach in the head.

All the parents threw leftovers, rubbish, unwanted things over the fence, not realising it landed right where their children played. But we kind of liked it, living among the trash. Like we were in New York, where all the kids on TV lived. Lost children who convene in filth-strewn nature, searching among the human residue for pieces they recognised. Louise once found the long-broke shards of her own plate among the plants, still stained by past dinners. She thinks of this plate as she walks, half-looking for the pieces, unsure which parent threw it down here in the first place.

Shining glass and foil still peek between the waxen leaves, garish spider-eyes watching her descent. Recycling has grown in popularity, with compost bins now hugging the yard-edges she passes, yet litter still governs the track. Crockery, torn fabric, plastic totems of childhood stand half-buried in the dirt, survivors of a catastrophic flood. The few rich kids of the area, the ones whose parents served prawns rather than boiled cheerios at their birthday parties, didn’t like playing in the filth and soon stopped visiting altogether.

For the rest of us, the grime was part of the appeal, tearing us further away from what the adults wanted, as if we opposed even cleanliness. That youthful primate satisfaction of filth and nature, of littering and apathy, of embodiment and the sensual. The Cage was all part of that, a singular, unmistakeable theatre upon which we staged our growth, our independence.

We could never agree on a title for it. Some called it The Cage or The Grill, others The Fishrun despite its lack of fish, still others just called it There. A creek birthed from a cage, unlit pipe hiding behind the bars, offering no sense of scale or texture, only a menacing anti-gaze. Every last colour of industry: the many shades of brown and grey, the toxic orange froth which gathered on the metal bars after rain, the mildew and algae green. All its details are seared into her mind, every crack and creeping weed.

The bush thickens, with curled branches reaching out across the path that force her to duck and scrabble on the earth. She has grown, as has the flora, all reminders that this is no place for her now. Despite being a schoolday morning, Louise half expects to see the vague silhouettes of youths between the trees.

The lighting, the smell, the humidity, entirely unchanged. Sunlight too high contrast, deep blacks and cutting whites, strange yellow-green hue over all. Stench of our damp planet, lingering sweat, metal eroding, an aroma unshakeable. Mere metres away, deep in unknowable nature, it lies. Calling to her even as the answer sits dormant in her churning stomach. Our altar, The Cage.

Hard not to inhale sharply upon recognising the very layout of the land, the rise and fall of earth, the limbs overhead, the sound of the ground. Her insides crumple as she readies herself to approach. Identical to the feeling when she first ventured down here, age eleven, down into the dizzying realm of young-adulthood.

Seeing the clearing devoid of inhabitants feels wrong somehow. A flat and unmoving sea which lost its tide. Dozens of kids and teenagers would be staged across the landscape back then, in little groups or pairs or lonely-shyly leaning against the trees, praying for attention. Some would sit cross-legged, loudly talking amongst themselves, eating uncooked noodles and entire blocks of chocolate as they hooted and shoved one another. In the more private areas, couples lay together pashing or feeling each other up without a care for who saw.

The best spot in the clearing was directly atop The Cage itself, sitting on the concrete with legs dangling over the muddy trickle and rusted bars. We used to slide down with a bar in the crook of each leg, decelerating with our hands just before we touched the filthy water. Mum always worried about the callouses Louise got from the bars, certain tetanus lurked inside them. Cold bedsheets against your ragged palms always felt so relaxing, so right. The new generation would never know that sensation, would never sit in the best spot, for The Cage now lies sunken underwater. The raised concrete is only a few millimetres above the water’s surface, its abrasive bars angling into the deep, far from a child’s reach.

Strange milky hue to the water, equally purulent and pearlescent, sickly sweet. Perhaps caused by some sediment drawn from the earth, or a sealant used to fill the pipe. A cream-colour which catches the light as a once-digested opal would. Foil chip packets and long-dead bumblebees float on the surface like lazy boats, circling each other, slowly following an imperceptible current leading elsewhere. It seems to reflect more than normal water, painted as it is with the rippling leaves, branches, and sky above as if they too float tangibly on its surface. 

We had constructed myths about The Cage back then, back when it breathed air. The most popular argued that it imprisoned a deformed boy called Mangy Malcolm, hungry for blood and lollies. Kids said they could see eyes glowing inside the pipe, a gnarled hand reaching between the bars, deranged gibbers echoing. None of us completely believed or disbelieved the stories, but we gave it the appropriate amount of gravity whenever it came up. Sightings were numerous, even if Louise and many others had no encounters. Brave boys used to leap into the knee-high filth and bang sticks against the bars, shouting out swear words, challenges, and threats into the tubular dark. Malcolm never responded.   

Funny how children think up those things, submit to that impulse to create mythology. Mangy Malcolm was the city planner’s illegitimate son and the pipe housed a tiny bedroom for him only accessible by sewer. His father would visit wearing a three-piece-suit in the dead of night, seen leaping into manholes by insomnia-riddled parents. Malcolm’s school-friends were the first people to start hanging out at The Cage because they missed him and could bring him his favourite snacks, only for the litter and mud to become his primary food source as he aged and they moved away.

She sits down by the water’s edge, knees held to her chin, becoming as small as possible. Everything else looks as Louise remembered, but without The Cage, a sense of unbelonging ascends. Louise is too old, and during the days spent here she was too young. Uncomfortable to see photographs of yourself at eleven or thirteen. Too small-looking, too underdeveloped for all the memories that age carries.

So much clings to this place, both good and bad, thrilling and dull. An endless parade of firsts, of emotions previously unfelt, of experiences long awaited, of failed starts and regret. Acrid mouthful of the first cigarette you ever tried, twelve years old, stolen from Hayley’s grandfather in a daring heist. The distinctive lighting of There seemed to curl around the smoke itself, as if the air was equally dense and ever-rising. Butts still breach the dirt around her, little buoys wildly angled in a storm paused, beacons of early firsts. It must be eight years since Hayley’s grandfather died now. Perhaps he never learnt what happened to those cigarettes.

Tipsy-head feeling, bloated skull, lying back down on the dirt and giggling like the child you were. We usually just had beers or fruit-flavoured vodkas which sat warm and heavy in our young stomachs. We’d lie in the grasses together, less drunk than we pretended to be, talking in performative slurs, writhing around all silly, imitating our parents at Christmas. Louise had heard the telltale crinkle of beercans underfoot on the track, seen the sticky labels picked off bottles, the broken glass. Tightly coiled spiral of youth and time eating itself with milk teeth.

Every few months, Nathan would bring a litre of spiced rum down to The Cage for us to share. Always the same brand, with this old-timey man on the label. His parents were cool and didn’t mind him drinking, as long as it was something ‘classy’ instead of the shit people his age usually drank. With the rum it was different, more real. The boys shouted and threatened each other, acted more forward, had no restraint. Some would smash their bottles and we’d stand in the broken glass the following day, adding to the hurt from our pubescent hangovers.

Nathan was the impromptu leader of There, the oldest believer who never stopped coming to mass, the last catholic unlapsed. Sixteen years old when Louise first met him, nascent facial hair around his jawline, tall and heavy-set, badass. Often he would show off the bruises he got from high-school fights and we intermediate kids would surround him in awe. We instinctively offered our concrete seat on The Cage when he emerged through the bush, for he was always the most deserving, our patriarch. All the girls had crushes on him, all the boys wanted to be him, nobody questioned his presence there, nobody distrusted him. 

Louise still remembers the fermented taste of his breath, her first kiss ever, his big face much less soft than the boys in her year. Politely he had asked to kiss her, to be the first one to do it, and she was so flattered and felt so ready, so overdue at age twelve. Freckly-cheeked, hair bescrunchied, school uniform-clad, not even allowed to wear makeup yet, but ready for this. His tongue seemed enormous inside her mouth and she didn’t like it when his hand touched her premature chest, but it didn’t register as wrong back then, just another thing kids did. He never went any further, but if he’d asked her, she would have complied.

Louise shuts her eyes and stands up, overcome with gross shudders, thoughts invading. She looks away from the drowned Cage, away from her own little knees poking under the dress, turning instead to the bush sloping upwards. That tiny-toothed smile in the school photos felt like a falsehood, yet it was the only truth she had from back then. Hard to imagine that girl giving Miranda a black eye during their fight over who got the last sip of cranberry vodka. Hard to imagine that girl spitting phlegm into Tom’s yogurt to die laughing as she watched him eat it unaware. Hard to imagine that girl being the reigning champ of the ‘nervous game’ where you measured how high you could run your hand up someone’s leg before they got uncomfortable and asked you to stop. Hard to imagine being a child at all.

Her workmates don’t seem to have memories like this. They speak of slumber parties and camping, of romping around the playground pretending to be werewolves or horses, of recording cringeworthy videos with friends, of quiet afterschool hangouts. Their first kisses happened behind the gym with a girl they completed a group project with, with a high-school boyfriend they wanted to marry someday, with people their own age. They didn’t drink and smoke until senior parties, until they travelled to the city for university, until they felt well and truly ready.

Louise paces around the clearing, the familiar glimpses bringing forth dejection rather than nostalgia. Imagine being a child there today, imagine what would be different or, more importantly, what wouldn’t. Still the bottles, the butts, the condom packets, the imprints of bodies in the grasses, the small shoeprints. If they approached her now, freed from school, would she warn them of the future?

Inexplicable feeling of guilt, of self-awareness highlighting every blemish the makeup of memory can’t conceal. Sudden desire to do something, to help someone, to write a message in the dirt which will keep the new generation away from here. A misplaced, stupid thought, coming from a current dissatisfaction, ignorant to the fleeting youthful joys we also encountered. What of the time spent playing spin-the-bottle or tag, choreographing our own dance routines, roleplaying as explorers together?

Nothing falls into place inside her head. She continues forcibly dredging forth positive thoughts, appropriate from her adult perspective, but none linger. Remembrance of the time everyone came together to comfort a crying girl, intercut with Nathan punching an eleven-year-old in the head for talking back. Too many events to properly quantify, too many of her own memories negated as falsehoods against the truth of the land she stands on. The natural beauty, the romantic excitement, the adventurous spirit of this place was never truly present. Louise wraps her hands around the back of her neck and folds inwards, overwhelmed by conflicting thoughts, overlapping with The Cage.

Every child matures, every child has a place where they rebelled, where they lost their innocence. Here was as good as anywhere, but nowhere is good for an adult to look back upon. She was only fourteen when she found herself forgetting to visit The Cage, found herself too old. No big event pulled her away, only a slow elliptical release from its grip. Louise looks around the clearing, fearful she may see one of the rum bottles sitting in the present, floating in the water. Fearful to find any evidence that Nathan, now thirty-two, never stopped coming down here to kiss and beat children. Even he must’ve grown up, known better than to return.

Louise walks to the edge of the pond, looking into the marbling water with its unseen precious contents. She knows that if she were to fish out one of the drowned bumblebees, it would be hard and brittle like popcorn between her fingers, and for some reason that makes her relax. Deliberately, apathetically, she undresses, dropping her clothes on the mildewed earth to grow muddy and damp. Entirely nude, an adult’s body, she places her feet on the raised concrete of The Cage and leaps into the water without grace. Barely a splash follows her, as if she too was aqueous.

Sinking as the sun does, Louise opens her eyes, lashes dragging ripples through the water. Her body look small and unblemished through the murk, like it has never been used before. When she smiles, bubbles sneak between her teeth and travel up her face to escape this unreal sunken realm. Right in front of her, The Cage watches, looking just as it used to look. Fact-proven river of gravy water atop the dirt beneath her, travelling at its own incongruent current, ignoring the still water she floats inside of. Suspended in light and time, unwavering. The concrete and bars all look dry, untouched by the water, no wetter or rustier than in her memories. As dry as history.

Swimming forward, Louise peers through the bars into the nothing, just hoping. Faintly visible, the bloated corpse of Mangy Malcolm rests wet and tortured at the bottom of the pipe, wearing faded clothes much too small for him. Child’s clothes he never removed. He levitates and drifts away from her, deeper into the pipe, lifeless head lolling. Louise reaches between the bars, but it’s already too late.

Rose petals, ranging from red to pink to white tumble down the pipe towards her in a splutter of filthy, pulpy water. They effortlessly glide between the bars and caress her bare feet and legs as they pass, caught by an undersea wind. Spinning bottles follow the petals, of beer, of vodka, of spiced rum with an old-timey man on the front. The Cage is a mouth with braces and bits of old food stuck to its front, a beckoning, gaping thing expelling all its contents.

The bottles hit the metal bars with clinks loud enough to deafen, all of them too big to pass through the gaps. Clattering into each other, they form a blockade, a window stained. Through the bottleglass Louise can see the shape of a girl inside the pipe, slowly approaching. A little geriatric girl, bent over and shrivelled, small and energetic, wise beyond her ignorance. They look at each other, not smiling or frowning. The old girl looks tired, too many late nights up doing homework, too many adventures and experiences, alive for too long. For a glimpsed decade the counterparts gaze at one another, each growing bored of the face looking back.

Without warning, the old girl fades away, turning into potato chips gone soggy. A clattering tidal wave takes the chips in its wake and pushes them against the blockage of bottles that Louise peers into. Litter, leaves, condoms, fruit peels, shards of your own family’s crockery, newspapers sporting future dates, the bones of a drowned child all in a roiling mass, all held back by the glass. Louise is so small and the detritus so big, so much bigger than her. It collides into itself, over and over, a piece of trash to fill each crack, slow formation of a dam that seals her from the pipe and the pipe from her.

Taking hold of a bottleneck, Louise pulls with all her might, kicking her legs just like they told her in swim class. Nothing budges save Louise and some sodden landfill, her infantile arms useless against the maelstrom. The water thickens, grows opaque, rises slowly around her, around the lesser water she floats through. Islands rising, island-trees with boards crudely hammered into the limbs that reach out, fingers spread as they collide in a tag, touching poorly dyed hair, whiteboard markers for colour, gluesticks for strength. Louise recognises the taste of this new water, taste of tears mixed into milk and lemonade. Opacity takes over, and Louise loses her vision, catching a final fleeting glimpse of the sealed pipe and the cage, The Cage, The Grill, The Fishrun, There, before all is wet and blind again. 

Through the murk, she sees only the feeblest impression of the bars she once loved, once staged her life between. Deep into the earth it travels, perhaps into the molten core, perhaps to the other side of the planet altogether. Maybe it was originally built for stormwater, or sewage, or some emergency egress in case of flooding, but it was never used for that. It was only there for us.

Louise, twenty-seven years old, can already feel her breath shortening, the abusive grip of water ever-tightening. Daylight trickles downwards and wraps around the woman submerged, the breath she releases. Soon she will have to surface, to join the floating litter and the bubbles she blew, but not until she is ready. Not until she is done growing.

Next week's short story is "The Photograph" by Wellington author Elspeth Sandys.

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