Catalogue Essay, Gemma Weston
If the boy stands in the front doorway at the right time of day his shadow stretches almost the length of the hall. He has waited all day for that right time and now he stands there with eyes closed and, breathing in like he’s preparing for a high dive, tries to will his shadow that little bit further. Whispering to himself, he imagines it winding its way out of the door and through the backyard, rustling the leaves of the oak tree and knotting itself through the slaughterman’s chain. Concentrating, he sends it further still, hitching down Albany Highway, past the city and towards the bright coast.
That morning he had told his brother a story.
The shadows grow because they fill with the words of prayer.
His brother had listened so intently that he had made the story grow, too.
That’s why we say the prayers just after the sun has set, because during the day our shadows have become so full of words that they can’t hold any more. At just at the right moment, when the sun has gone, the prayers make them burst and pour out into the dark. The words are freed, and they float up through the night towards heaven.
His brother had questions.
So why do we pray after that then?
I don’t know, because dad says so. Because we need to make new shadows.
He knows that he probably shouldn’t tell stories, especially about prayers, but he had told it anyway, just to see the look in his brother’s eyes. He knows it was a fabrication but now, as the shadows are really straining and the edges of things are fuzzy it’s hard to tell what can and can’t come true, what’s real and what isn’t.
Tonight could be that night, as well, which might account for what feels like the extra charge of his words. He wasn’t sure how to pick it, the night of destiny or power or value - no one was - but there were a lot of signs that this one could be it. It was the last few days of the last week of the ninth month, that month of dry sacred days and full sacred nights, and the moon had already gone into hiding. The ninth month fell later in the calendar year each year and this year the evenings were warm and clean and fresh-smelling, wrapping around him like new linen. This afternoon the gutters had gleamed silver in the sun and the footpaths had been flecked with jewels. Perhaps this was it.
When he opens his eyes his shadow has left him to make sense of it on his own. The dusty chandeliers are on now, which will make it a little easier to walk down the hallway without breaking into a run, but they never quite get far enough into the corners for complete safety. His brothers call the hallway the ‘ghost trap’, and he tells himself that their fears are catching, that it’s the name itself that conjures the breath on the back of his neck.
He tests his theory with a measured saunter that mocks fear and spirits, heel in front of toe on the cold jarrah, arms out to keep balance, keeping his eyes on the open door at the hall’s end. There’s a hunstman sprawled above it, but in the hallway real creatures are preferable to apparitions and he knows the spider is a friend despite its fangs. Making slow progress, he whispers another story, one of his father’s, testing out this newfound power of incantation:
When he was hiding in the cave the spider spun a web to keep him hidden. We cannot harm the spiders because the spider kept him safe.
Don’t be scared of the spider, he is my brother.
He tries to halt his imagination but this only makes it wilder, filling the seven once-safe rooms that feed the hall with phantoms. In the corner of his vision, the sheep that met their maker in the backyard bounce with their legs still tied against the ceiling of his parent’s room like helium balloons, testing the rose and cornices for weak spots that might free them to finish the journey skywards. The skirting boards rise and multiply behind him into silent beings that shadow his steps, willing him to turn to catch them in the act.
As he reaches the threshold of safety he stops, finally willing himself to look at the path that he has forged and as he does he catches something that holds his breath in his throat. Through the last door on his left he sees a windowless room that is not the bathroom that should be there. In the new room a man sits at a desk strewn with half-made creatures, inanimate shapes frozen in white clay. His hands work another clay mass into a human face, one that is almost, frighteningly familiar. Behind the man, he recognises another familiar shape, a familiar pattern, a familiar door. Behind the man on a tall white pedestal is the ghost trap, in miniature, its tiny lamps glowing in the false dusk of the concrete studio.
As the man turns to reach for a tool the boy glimpses a profile that is familiar too, but larger, more pronounced. Before he can meet the eyes that he knows will be his own, he breaks his resolve and runs, through the doorway and through the sleep-out and out into the backyard, where there is enough open space to hold the secrets of the world at a safe distance.
In the clear air he sits on the verandah and thinks of nothing for a long while, looking only at the edges of objects, tracing the clear, reassuring boundaries with his eyes.
He stays like that, perfectly still, as the day’s shadows dissolve and are replaced with the night’s, searching the bruised sky for another definitive beginning and ending, the smallest sliver of the new month’s moon.