Journey Home

This is a short fiction piece I wrote nearly 10 years ago, while living in Australia. I can’t remember what my mindset was exactly at the time, or where the inspiration came from. I suspect I was getting close to the end of my time in that country, contemplating what my next step down life’s path would be, and where I belonged. While the story centers on literal death, for me it was an exploration of death of one’s past ‘self’, and of recognizing who you are in the moment, what powers the pulse of your life blood, and what connects you to the world around you. It’s odd to look back at my writing from so long ago and recognize both the naivety and the power behind a 20-something’s expanding mind. Who was I then? Only the person I would become today.

In the balmy heat of a mid-summer day, Sadie floated in the shallow, salty sea like a weightless leaf bobbing on the surface. Her sun-streaked auburn hair swirled around her in slow motion as she drifted. The sun penetrated her porcelain skin, turning it nearly as pink as the heart-shaped sunglasses poised on top of her head. She was mesmerized by the tiny microcosm of activity beside her—a highway of green ants, their translucent bellies gleaming in the sun, commuting along the weathered bark of a mangrove branch that hung just above the water’s surface. Her eye followed the living trail to a spot where one mass of ants was in the midst of consuming a long-expired butterfly. Each ant used its mandibles like a knife and fork, slicing portable pieces of wing and body and carrying it dutifully onward to wherever it was destined to return. Sadie wondered how the insects knew exactly where to go, or what to bring back. She tried to track a particular ant all the way along its journey, but found that each time she tried, the individual soon blended in with all the others, as if these hundreds of tiny creatures were just cells of one gigantic organism. Indeed, this ‘organism’ had arms and legs, streams of tiny dots that seemed to connect fluidly wherever they travelled. It was beautiful, she thought; frightening too. She was lulled into a trance by these winding, searching appendages. She imagined them streaming out to her, engulfing her, piercing her skin effortlessly to feast upon her life-giving flesh.

 ***

 “Do they really have boxing kangaroos over there?” Sadie had asked her mother when, at the age of twelve, she was told that they would be moving to Australia. She received a shrug in response. Sadie tried again. “Don’t they have all the world’s deadliest animals? You can barely handle finding a little spider in the bathtub.”

Her mom paused, looking at her distractedly from behind limp strands of dark curls. “Look, I know this move isn’t going to be easy, Sadie, but I…but we don’t have a choice at this point.” It was as if she hadn’t even heard her daughter, but rather was answering a question that had been nagging her own mind. “Think of it like an adventure, like we’re in an Indiana Jones movie.” Her words were meant to conjure a smile, but they fell flat on Sadie’s expectant ears. She thought she remembered a time when her mother had showed authentic emotion, but of course things had changed. She told herself she understood, at least as well as a pre-adolescent girl could understand such nuanced sentiments.

 “How long will we be living there?” Sadie asked, trying to read her mother’s eyes. She didn’t ask why they were moving. That, she knew. She knew from the way her mother had detached herself from everything familiar over the past few months. How, long before the move, she had packed away the family albums, locked away keepsakes, and bottled up her own feelings along with everything else. Since Sadie’s father had died, her mom had steadily withdrawn from all aspects of their life in California, as if the very idea of continuing to live there was too painful for her. For Sadie, however, it felt like abandonment. It’s not that she didn’t love an adventure—normally the prospect of living in a foreign country, especially one full of exotic animals and tropical environments, would be a dream come true. But to leave her home behind was like cutting the last living string connecting Sadie to her father. She wasn’t ready.

 “It depends,” her mom answered absent-mindedly as she stuffed a ragged wool sweater into a box with the words ‘TO GIVE AWAY’ written on it in sloppy block letters. Depended on what, her mom didn’t specify, as she never did anymore. To Sadie, it meant, ‘as long as I need before I can be myself again’. In other words, maybe years. Maybe forever.

 ***

As a cloud passed overhead and cast a creeping shadow over her, Sadie shuddered, as if awaking from a spell. Looking around her, she realized she had drifted quite some way from where she had entered the ocean. She flipped over onto her stomach and paddled toward the wide, flat rocks along the shore, taking care to avoid the stag horn corals whose branches jutted from the seabed like giant stilettos. Once on land, she stood facing the bay where she had been swimming, the bay that had become so familiar to her over the past few years. Her pale frame was a smudge against the black rocks and vibrant blue of the water. Her mind was elsewhere, lost in memory.

 *** 

Outside, the first true chill of winter has finally rolled in with a heavy fog that blankets the southern California hillsides. Inside a cozy stucco house nestled at the edge of a scrub oak woodland, Sadie watches her father perform magic. She is enthralled as he pulls a wondrous mountain of gooey marshmallow, melted chocolate, and graham crackers out of the microwave and places it delicately in her eager hands.

S’mores—most Australians had never heard of them. To Sadie, they were an emblem of another life. The memory was one of the few vivid fragments of her father that she remembered. The loving wrinkles that appeared around his eyes each time he smiled (what color were those eyes, though?); a reddish beard speckled with grey that quivered when he laughed (what did it sound like?). He had reminded Sadie of Santa Claus at times, except that he was tall and slim. But his boisterous cheer seemed to fill a much bigger space than his meagre frame.

It was Sadie’s father who first nurtured her fascination of the natural world. He often led her on hikes through the foothills beyond their backyard, Sadie trotting merrily behind him as she detoured through labyrinthine bushes and under half toppled logs. The name of their valley, ‘Conejo’, meant rabbit in Spanish, and there certainly were plenty of rabbits scampering about. They, along with families of quails, squirrels, blue jays, and countless other animals, made their home in this tree-studded grassland. The oak trees captivated Sadie most. They seemed to rule over the land like solitary lions on an African Savannah—nobly poised and ancient, timeless in the eyes of a little girl. They generously nourished the squirrels and birds with their acorns, and provided shade for Sadie and her father when they sat for a rest. The two would sit there for what seemed like hours, listening to the breeze rattle through pockets of sagebrush as it carried dandelions off into the unknown. Something about this environment grounded Sadie, even at a young age. She could feel the blood course potently in her veins, as if it drew its strength from this place. She would squeeze her father’s hand, and without looking, know he was smiling.

After his death, Sadie’s mom had refused to remove any of her husband’s belongings, the neat rack of shirts and slacks still hanging in the closet, his razor and shaving cream in the bathroom, his stacks of books about backpacking, dirt biking, and amateur photography strewn about the house. Everything remained as it had when he had still been around to give life to them, and her mom could not bear to destroy the illusion of his presence. Sadie’s grandparents had finally offered their help, carefully packing and storing all of the sensitive belongings whose memories faintly lingered in their wake. The series of goodbyes—to teachers, to friends, to adults whom she barely knew—was all a blur to Sadie, just like her father’s funeral. A black haze of fearful hugs, sidelong glances, and unfamiliar tears; all but her own, which came only when she was alone in bed at night, and then they came silently. No sobs, no sniffles, just a gentle flowing stream that pooled in her pillow and warmed one side of her face like a tender caress until she fell asleep. By the time she had boarded the plane with her mother, her existence in California felt like an extended dream.

 ***

That was five years ago. Sadie’s new life in Australia has started out rocky; making new friends was difficult, and her mom worked long hours at the university. But at the end of each school day, Sadie would toss off her starchy uniform in exchange for bathing suit, board shorts, and flip flops, and be off to find her sanctuary in the outdoor wonderland of her sub-tropical home. Over time she won the favour of her Australian school mates, who ogled at her accent and made up fancy stories about her California existence. Now in her senior year, Sadie was still trying to make up her mind where to go to college, whether to stay in Australia, her adopted home, or go back to the states, a place that by now seemed so distant.

 Lost in thought, Sadie had by now unconsciously followed the artery of scurrying ants onto shore, where they flowed from the tree branch and disappeared into a cluster of larger mangroves. These trees appeared to Sadie to float in mid-air, held aloft by a tangle of buttressing roots that wound up and down, in and out of the shallow water like petrified serpents, eternally tangled. These countless roots bulged at precarious angles from a single trunk, stretching out as if grasping for something beyond their reach. She felt like an intruder in this world that smelled both of mossy decay and green re-birth. Her bare feet crunched loudly over centuries’ worth of coral rubble strewn about along the shoreline. Rubble, as if these bleached and brittle fragments were the ancient ruins of a fallen civilization. In a way, they were—once forming brilliant colonies of living creatures that together formed the basis of a vibrant ecosystem.

Below the water’s surface lay a labyrinth of branches and roots where newborn fish chased insects and each other in the shadows. Their tiny home was as gentle as bathwater, a protected bubble that would one day give way to stronger currents, fiercer threats, and bigger unknowns. Little leafy shoots poked sprightly out of the water beneath their towering parents, a vision of what they too would one day become if their struggle for existence succeeded. The sun filtered softly through the canopy into the water and reflected bright yellows and oranges, leaves dissolving back into the basic nutrients that once flowed through their living veins. These leaves belonged here, were meant to live and die here.

Sadie’s mind, though it had only just reached adulthood, was wise beyond its years and knew that Sadie’s fate lay elsewhere. This was not her home. It would never be her home, she felt, as much as the bouncing marsupials and crested birds enthralled her, as much as she loved calling the wilderness ‘bush’ or ‘outback’, or was lulled by the relaxed twang of a tropical accent. No. Sadie’s life blood still stemmed from that other place, on another coastline across the ocean. She knew that somewhere over the horizon before her, it still existed, waiting for her to return. This southern land where she now stood held many promises, offered much for the soul. But one day the native oak trees of her home would sing to her; the thick, smoky scent of sagebrush would travel with the wind to find her.

As she turned her back to the water her eyes sparkled, and although her lips didn’t move, they hinted a knowing smile, as if she had overheard a secret whispered among the trees. She sauntered off along the beach, leaving only the faintest of footprints behind in the sand.

***

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