Living Things

Words by Emily O’Grady

Published on August 8, 2016

While the city flooded, one of the timber stilts holding up my mother’s house uprooted. One night I went downstairs to hang out the washing on the blue wire zigzagged under the rafters, and the thick, rough trunk lay across the damp concrete like a bloated white corpse. When my mother called a handyman a few weeks later, he inspected the wood and the gaping hole and said he hadn’t seen anything like it, as though someone had jackhammered around the concrete and slammed the stilt onto the ground with brute strength. He said the sound of the wood falling and cracking must have rattled the foundations like an earthquake and echoed something shocking, but we hadn’t left the house for almost a week and no one heard a thing.

 

The house was built in the ’30s—a creaky, interwar Queenslander in Morningside, close to the railway station. Frosted green casement windows wrap around the verandah, and there’s a fetid mango tree in the backyard jammed with ringtail possums that are so domesticated from being handfed carrots they crawl in through the kitchen windows and help themselves to kiwis and nectarines from the fruit bowl.

In the ’50s a doctor bought the house from its owners. He lived out back and set up shop in the front section of the house. He sealed up the verandah and turned it into a reception, and the surgery next to it would eventually become my parents’ room. The sink from then is still installed beside the wardrobe, and when I was small I would lie on the waterbed and imagine a tall, thin man with a stethoscope dangling from his ears, scrubbing his hands and then slicing me open.

When the doctor died the operating table stayed in the surgery. The next owners converted the house into units, then spliced it back together again a decade later. When my parents bought it in the ’80s the table was still there—the maple wood cold and pale. Its purpose shifted as it shifted around the house—first it was my mother’s sewing table, then it became a display bench shelving nesting dolls and felted pods, until finally I claimed it as my work desk.

 

Of course, the house is haunted. When my eldest sister was a teenager she swore she could feel a hand pressed to the small of her back whenever she washed her hands in the bathroom. My other sister would wake in the night with a weight against her chest. There were always things tugging and touching, a split second feeling of unexplainable dread. The gas knob would turn off whenever my mother boiled the kettle. Once, when I woke, I found a chunk of my hair on my bedside table and a bald patch at the back of my head.

My mother worked at a special school, and one day a relief teacher approached her in the staffroom and told her there were small children following her around. She said she could sense things and that my mother had many things attached to her. My mother didn’t mind. She said if they were going to cause harm they would have done so by now, but a few months later the woman came to our house and performed an exorcism. When she walked through the living room she said she could feel the children pulsing around the house like fireflies, and in the bathroom, a restless, sad man draining the whole house of its energy. She opened the windows and burned a bundle of sage through all the rooms, and then opened a Bible to the 23rd Psalm and left it on the antique sewing machine table, a dried sprig on its tissuey pages.

 

I’d felt ghosts before, but it wasn’t until the floods that they became material as living things. I kept my school Bible open on the operating table but it didn’t seem to work. One night it was a young girl, lunar pale. Another time, a hunched woman, short as a child. A few times, a tall man with blonde hair and sunken in eyes stood at the foot of my bed before melting forward into the mattress. Officially: hypnogogic hallucinations. Some people see spiders or rats crawling along the walls. Others are stiffened by paralysis and their minds became trapped in their frozen bodies. But that summer my ankles and thighs were swollen and raw from jolting out of bed and thrashing into walls and sharp door corners. When I’d go back to sleep with the light on, in the morning my sheets would be smeared with blood from the cuts and carpet burns that marked my legs. One night my foot folded under itself as I tripped over a pedestal fan and I fractured three toes.

 

That summer, as the Brisbane River was breaking its banks, I spent the days inside reading and drawing. I worked as a maths tutor and had taken to keeping a notepad where I wrote myself dozens of long division sums, filling up the pages while re-watching Dawson’s Creek. On the third day of flooding, my sister and mother and I painted the verandah. We’d had the paint for months, but it was only when we were trapped that it seemed pressing. Even with all the windows cracked it was a hot, fumy hell. We took turns climbing onto the ladder to reach the high ceilings. When I went up to paint above the window frame I found six gecko skeletons fused to the exposed light wiring. They were babies, small as my thumbnail, and lined in a row, following one another like lemmings. I brushed over their knobbly spines, and you can still see their outlines underneath the green-grey Lamb’s Ear if you get up on a stool.

When it finally stopped raining the afternoon light was buttery and the lawn was swampy and lush. I walked my dog down to the Hawthorne ferry terminal. The streets were quiet, and the usually congested main roads were bare, the bitumen littered with slick leaves. As I walked I was surrounded by other people headed towards the river, walking barefoot down the middle of streets with stubbies in their hands. Sandbags were packed to the garages of the townhouses and the stilts of the modern Queenslanders were marked with silt. When I got to the terminal, there were hundreds of people facing the river, looking over to Hamilton and the Teneriffe woolstore. The river water engulfed the pontoon and the trunk of the Moreton Bay Fig that lurched over the park. There were SES volunteers in hi-vis standing where the floodwater licked at the street and the backyards of the houses closest to the river, warning people to back off if they got too close to the water, which was still as a lake and dank as mud.

 

By the next night the water had begun to recede. I scrubbed the timber walls of the bathroom, which were speckled with mould. The whole house smelled like wet dog and the floorboards were sticky from the heat and the rain. I climbed onto the dining room table to dust the chandelier that hadn’t been touched for years. When I reached into the bowl under where the light bulb hung, it was thick with zapped moths. There were hundred of them, inches deep. I scooped up a handful and they were powdery and soft and their wings disintegrated in my hand.

I took the washing out of the machine, gluggy and forgotten, and hauled the basket under the house. The stilt must have fallen in the days preceding. I investigated the stump from a distance; its white paint was luminous in the dark and I was scared to touch it. We were high on a hill and the water hadn’t reached us, but the concrete floor was still rain-mucked and cold beneath my feet. I left the washing and went into the yard. Most of the street had blacked-out except for ours and the house next door was candle-lit from the inside. Our grass glowed under the Christmas lights strung like barbed wire along the back steps.