SHORT STORIES

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Illustration by Matt Weismantel

The Phantom Songs | Alana Paterson

In the dream that I woke from, Miranda warmed my tiny hand in hers as she led me across the beach towards the festival. It was the time of year when the moon blinds the sea in darkness before us. Our world of warmth was fading into the glistening afterglow on the sand. Our footprints left behind like sunspots. The black seas salt breeze chilled my nose with an intensity and harshness that cannot be matched during the day.

 

On the promenade drove the phantoms in their nebulous forms and vehicles of igniting colours, like microcosms of fireworks. They waved translucent hands; singing with silvery voices to the enamoured crowd. A child holding her mother’s hand waved back. I was also a child. I did not wave. I knew they were not real. I heard their songs as shrill penetrating notes flung from their vehicles as they passed. Miranda lifted me, scratching like a stray kitten, onto her shoulders. I was too young to know who she was. I saw the festival from my nest above the world. The city’s melodic heartbeat vibrated in my ears. Neon signs with foreign writing flew between the buildings like electric birds.  

 

"Here it comes," Miranda said as she pointed down the promenade.

 

The earthquake approached. Stomping footsteps shook the skyscrapers and palm trees. The intimidating behemoth burst through the crowd, high on mania at the sight of the celestial mother. This is the grotesque effigy everyone had come to see. The celestial mother exhaled a bellow of foul breath spraying droplets of polluted saliva. The crowd protected their faces from the spray. I watched a large droplet sink into the cracks of the pavement where it festered and grew into a flower born from disease. The behemoth stomped on the flower. Its feet were moist and littered with barnacles. The ground shook, and I lost my balance. I was flung off Miranda’s shoulders. Windows shattered like falling wind chimes. The crowd was broken out of their trance. We were separated in the panic. The phantom songs vanished with the crowd. I was alone.

 

"Mum!" I screamed for the stranger who had never once saved me.

 

A faint, familiar echo pulsated between the skyscrapers, the dejected, off-key whining of an Erhu. I picked myself up and followed my curse to my childhood, abandoned in the mountains.

 

I wandered through buildings and empty streets until the road I was following became dirt, and the skyscrapers became mountains. Grandpa’s worn hands, as harsh as the mountains behind him, moved like a cascading leaf when he played the Erhu. The soles of my feet burned. My breath faltered as I climbed the incline. I grimaced at how dry the air became as it rubbed against my nostrils. The sun rose from beneath the ancient mounds of stone, clay and dirt. Trillions of microbes still slept underneath. They were dreaming of the unspoken and endlessly told story of life and decay. I had forgotten how lonely and desolate my old home was.

 

After what felt like eons, I reached the peak and saw a mansion with angular lines of stark white. Dreaming in the front garden was the Magnolia tree from my Grandpa’s house. I would steal its flowers just to rub the thick, smooth, pink petals between my thumb and forefinger. The white halo of transparent, sunlit flowers against the spindly branches put the mansion’s sterility to shame. Two boys, younger than me, were chasing each other around the tree. I was too distracted and fell, scraping my knees on the stabbing rocks. They stopped playing when they saw me. I approached them hesitantly and begged for water like a newborn grasping for a mother’s milk. They took me inside and interrogated me as to who I was. I knew they were my brothers, and I knew not to tell. I said nothing and drank the water they gave me. They stared at me with their meerkat eyes.

 

"Mum and dad will be home soon, but you can stay and play with us until then."

 

The floor was white and shiny, the furniture extravagant. My feet left dirty footprints on the perfect floor as we chased each other through the mansion. As a child, I had always wanted siblings to play with and a big house to play in. The boys stopped in their tracks and looked outside.

 

"Mum and dad are home; we have to hide her!"

 

They pushed me into a bedroom and closed the door. Grandpa was there playing his Erhu while sitting on a rickety stool by the window. Like a figure in a painting, he looked through me with apathy. It was not the painting’s figure that had something to say. Perhaps it was the contrast between the poor man in rags and the white palace he didn’t belong to, or the cone-shaped mountains behind him, whispering his time in his failing ears. A car approached, and the engine stopped. Grandpa rested his Erhu against the wall. My chest tightened as I hid under the bed.

 

"Who left these dirty footprints everywhere!" a man shouted. I smothered an involuntary cough. Grandpa looked at me. I was always scolded into a state of non-existence by the rocks replacing his pupils.

 

"What was that?" the man said.

 

"What was what? Did you hear anything boys?" said a woman’s voice.

 

"No, mum."

 

Grandpa stared out of the window. I shut my eyes tight and cried silently. I was not their secret to keep. I was hers. Hours passed before the woman snuck in and pulled me out from under the bed. She pushed me outside the backdoor like she pushed me into the world, without a second thought.

 

I walked back down the steep mountain path. I intended on walking home, but I couldn’t fathom such a place. I wandered aimlessly. The sun was beginning to set as dusk dyed the sky with pink. Amidst that pink, I saw the foreign ocean city with her dazzling lights and neon signs. Apartment lights in the towering skyscrapers changed colour and pulsed to a melody I couldn’t quite hear. I set out to find Miranda.

 

I broke into a sprint. Every time I fell, I got back up as fast as I could. It got easier as my legs grew taller, and my balance became more experienced. Pink sank into the dimming ocean and made way for a sombre purple. A rush of salt air overcame me as my clothes and hair fluttered in the wind. I stopped running and turned to my right to see two giant black orbs looking back at me. It was the celestial mother.

 

It stared at me with intensity; its eyes full of tiny stars that examined me. Its hair was a galaxy that was purple in glow. It reached out to grab me with its enormous hand made of a rich, clay-textured ochre. Cradled gently in its palm, it held me. I soon realised it was far from the beast that I first thought it was. It unearthed its lower body from the mountains and carried me towards the city. The songs of the phantoms vibrated through the gaps of the celestial mother’s fingers. We reached the city and passed through the buildings and flying neon signs. I could read them. I stuck my head out from between its fingers and saw the sparkling phantoms driving below. I spotted Miranda in the crowd and called to her.

 

"Annie!" My aunt looked up at me as she shouted the new name that she had given me.

 

The celestial mother bent down and placed me on the ground. Miranda ran over and held me the same way she had held me when I arrived at the airport. The celestial mother rose and turned to the sea. Its giant feet left craters in the sand and waves in the water. The phantoms followed in their vehicles. Their songs disappeared into surfacing bubbles. When the behemoth’s hair reached the water, the purple glow engulfed the entire shore. It was completely submerged, and the festival was over.

 

Miranda turned to me, "Ready to see your new home?"

___________________________

Alana Paterson is a Southern Cross University student undertaking an Associate Degree of Creative Writing. She has completed a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Southern Queensland. 

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