Something in Truth and Lies’s latest posting, on Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death has inspired me to include this short story here, to back up my view that life is plotless: I called it ‘Things Happen’. It was published in Island Magazine
My friend invited us to dinner. It was hot. She had left the side doors open to catch the breeze. One of her rabbits hopped through and skittered across the carpet.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘My rabbits are toilet-trained.’
My friend served wild duck soaked in red wine and garnished with slivers of prosciutto. She had stuffed it with pine nuts and raisins.
Once again she argued with my husband over the meaning of life.
‘How can you say something’s meant to be as if someone’s in charge? Life’s not like that. Things just happen.’ He was glaring at her across the table. Her cheeks were flushed from too much wine.
‘It’s presumptuous to assume it all stops and starts with us,’ she said, sticking the carving knife into the side of her duck and sawing furiously as though the meat were tough. It fell away like crumbling cheese.
That last time I saw my friend I was still bleeding. When I went to the toilet, and saw the pad soaked through to my dress, I realised I must have been dripping through onto her seat cushion. The cushion was coloured a dark burgundy like my dress and the room was lit with candles. I hoped she would not notice.
I had lost the baby three days earlier. The doctor called it the lottery of pregnancy.
‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘You can try again’. He took me into his surgery to scrape out the left over bits but the bleeding went on.
My friend wrote poetry: long tortured pieces about the mad people she met through her work. She was a doctor, but I could not tell her about the baby or the bleeding that night. I was still picking over my grief.
One evening, months before my miscarriage, my friend came home and found two of her rabbits gone. She lived close to the city but her house was opposite parkland that ran all the way down to the Yarra River. Foxes lived by its banks in a maze of dens hidden among the ti-tree and gums.
My friend offered two of the surviving rabbits to me. She wanted them to breed. They would be safer in our house, away from the river and the park. But we never loved them enough. Not like my friend. We left them outside in the backyard in tight wire cages and their toenails grew long from never being able to dig or run free.
‘The pregnancy took but for some reason the egg and the sperm did not fit properly,’ the doctor had said, pointing to the empty sac on the ultrasound screen. ‘It’s just one of those things.’
I did not tell him how I had named the baby Horatio, after the Roman general who held the bridge. I did not tell him he was a boy. You’re not supposed to know those things, not at ten weeks. But I knew.
The rabbits mated. My friend showed me how to cordon off a section of the cage. When the mother rabbit was about ready to deliver her babies, my friend told me, I would notice her rip out lumps of fur from her body which she would use to line the cage.
‘Then you separate the male from the female. Male rabbits are likely to damage their young.’
There were five babies curled up together like pinky mice, their eyes covered with a thin shield of skin. My friend warned me not to touch the babies for several days, otherwise the mother might refuse to feed them.
Weeks before I miscarried, my friend came to our house for dinner. With each glass of wine her voice grew louder. She loved to argue, especially with men. We joked about the dangers of sitting beside her. She made her point by grabbing the nearest person at the table in a headlock and shaking him till he begged for release. She was strong, my friend, with long pointy fingers weighed down by silver rings.
My friend was born a twin but only she survived the birth. Her brother was born and died thirty minutes later. He became her shadow. She liked to think he was there with her all the time. At work meetings, as a laugh, she would insist on occupying two seats, one for herself, one for her twin.
My friend never had children of her own. She had wanted them, she told me, but they never happened.
In her fiftieth year, five years earlier, my friend had bought a red sports car, sleek, contoured and close to the ground. She drove it with the sun -roof down, her green scarf streaking behind in the wind. An Isadora Duncan scarf. My friend laughed when I told her how, in the 1920s at the height of her dancing career, the scarf on Isadora’s swan-like neck got caught up in the spokes of her car’s wheel and strangled her.
My friend wore glasses, with lenses thick like the bottom of milk bottles.
‘I couldn’t bear to go blind,’ she said, lifting her glasses to rub at her eyes. ‘I’d rather die first.’
At night she sat close to the computer screen composing letters of complaint to the editor, her last surviving rabbit, a barren female, hopping under her feet.
‘Silence is a crime,’ my friend said.
My friend bought tickets for a jazz concert the week after our dinner. ‘You’re sick. Go to bed,’ her husband said.
‘I’m not wasting my money.’ She closed her eyes, threw back her head and soaked in the music.
A bug crawled inside my friend and took over. It traveled along her blood stream letting off a poisonous gas. Within hours of the concert she went into a coma.
‘We need to make an oxygen chamber,’ the doctors said. ‘This bacteria hates oxygen.’ They hacked away at her dead flesh. Peeled off her right shoulder, part of her leg and stomach. My friend’s body swelled like a balloon as it struggled to defend her. The doctors spared her the pain by anesthetic and split her skin from shoulder to wrist to stop the constriction in her fingers and gangrene. Through it all she slept.
‘This hateful bug,’ her husband said, wiping my friend’s face with the back of his hand. ‘We must beat it.’
My bleeding stopped while my friend slept. I found a get-well card in a bookshop, a ‘bug’ card, depicting a green bug sitting up in bed, ill. But I did not buy it. It was too raw. I wrote her a letter instead: ‘What talks we’ll have when all this is over.’
The nurse came and washed my friend’s hair. Only her family could visit. Her husband was certain she enjoyed the water’s warmth, the touch. But the doctors insisted she was now brain dead and could feel nothing.
Without the machine, she breathed only three times a minute. She needed fourteen. She could not speak. She could not eat or shit. She was lonely and in despair, her husband said, but the doctors were certain she could feel nothing.
My friend died in the afternoon when the temperature in Melbourne reached 40.3, the hottest November day for 86 years. They turned off her life support. She did not tell me she was leaving. I did not hear a whisper.
We buried her and held a memorial. Tea and cucumber sandwiches. She would have preferred a glass of red.
Last night I saw my friend in a dream, sitting at her kitchen table, laughing, full bellied roars. She was wearing her green scarf, loosely draped around her neck. She sat, legs akimbo, as always, arms flying to right and left, as she remonstrated with us about the meaning of life, then grabbed hold of the nearest person at the table and pulled him to the ground.
‘Submit,’ she said. ‘On the count of five, I win.’
13 thoughts on “Life is plotless: Things Happen”
Wow! Elisabeth, that's the first thing of yours that I've read.It's really, really good.I love short stories.This is horrific and gentle and funny and dark and light and brilliant.I enjoyed reading it, thank you.
Lovely writing Elisabeth…I was riveted. I enjoyed how you were able to weave different story lines together so seamlessly. There are so many twists and turns in our lives that it is hard to ever define it with a plot.
Sorry about your miscarriage and the loss of your quirky friend.
this left me breathless.
What a powerful piece of writing.
I'm glad I came here again.
I find it amusing, a dead person arguing about the meaning of life. I enjoyed this story the way you flicked back and forth between the narrator, the friend and the rabbits and also the speed of the piece, pared to the bone, no waffle. The whole thing reminded me of the early work of the filmmaker Jane Campion. I could see her making a short out of the piece. Interesting too that I ‘heard’ the narrator in an Australian accent; that doesn’t usually happen with your stuff.
I don’t think I’ve ever found life to be pointless, plotless, yes, without a doubt, no grand plan for Jimmy, but I’ve always felt there was a point. It’s like when you’re in a boat without a rudder, you think you have no control and you haven’t but the tide will drag you off in a specific direction. It’s like when I wrote:
I don’t believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.
that sums up how I feel about the arbitrariness of life. I didn’t choose to be ill but then no one else decided that it would be a good thing if I was. Considering how I’ve lived my life that I would break down was inevitable; the specifics, the time, the place, the way, were not.
Oh, and it’s ‘The Truth About Lies’ not ‘Truth and Lies’. An easy mistake to make in fact it was inevitable that someone would sooner or later.
Thanks TFE for your kind words – high praise coming from you. I admire your writing so much.
Thanks, too, for your thoughts, Bonnie. There are many twists and turns in life, as you say, so many unpredictable events. And yet we desperately seek out some sense of certainty, such that we're almost always disappointed.
Thanks Angela and Akeith for your comments. I'm pleased you both enjoyed my story.
And Jim, I'm so sorry for getting the title of your blog wrong. It was careless of me, however understandable and I am sorry.
I agree with you that although life might be plotless, it is nevertheless not at all pointless.
I have never thought that. In fact, as far as I'm concerned it's the whole reason for living – the business of finding some point in life, some meaning, some reason for being here, some motivation for the things we do. Otherwise, what is the point?
My point here is that we can't always nail it down or at least not with any certainty.
Things happen that can get in the way from time to time and these things themselves have meaning.
I feel not my place to comment on such a beautiful writing.
I am sorry about your loss.
Fiercely loving and powerfully written. (I wrote this comment by mistake on your previous post about structure.)
This is so tender and tough, blunt and sentimental – full of all the mismatched emotions we struggle with. I agree with Jim – I had the whole thing on film. I visualize the cinematography kind of like James Joyce's The Dead (which was infinitely longer).
I'm sorry for your miscarriage too. I felt my 2 were harder to endure emotionall/hormonally than post-partum depression.
For years I have followed chance and found the ebb and flow of sense in it. I have read books on statistics, how the actual manifestation of random is not totally senseless but indeed these seams of sense-like occurrences that rise and fall away again, never quite coming to fruition. Occasionally something does and we say, "see, I knew it really made sense." Then the next mooment is random.
In DNA, there seems to be long strings of "sense" and then a few filler pieces, random, punctuation between them.
I Ching is a system of sense making that deliberately uses what mathematicians call pseudo-random events matched with traditional symbols to reveal the state of things filtered through the imaginaton. I Ching survives the tests of time because the results are so consistently like a dialogue held between a seeker and a book.
Sense is born out of nonsense as a matter of course. This happens every day. It is routine. What comes next is the interpretation and the willingness to trust such a thing or not. Once the pattern of belief or disbelief is established, it is very hard to shake. Behaviorists call this the phenomena of partial reinforcement, and assert it a feature of consciousness across the species, saying that when a thing is randomly and partially reinforced then the subject assumes the fault is in the self, in the practice, not the event.
The question is, if this is built in to phenomena so thoroughly, then it is as likely as not appropriate to make sense span the gaps. There is no way to establish random as senseless without also imposing an attitude. Do I choose a random world? Do I choose a world that nearly makes sense and assume an esoteric backdrop? God is mysterious. There is no God. This is the modern dilemma.
Science often takes the position that to add God adds nothing, thus God dies as an overcomplcation, an overstatement of conditions. Occam's razor slices God's throat. And yet biology clearly establishes overcomplexity as a life strategy. Hmmm. Life insists on the redundant as a survival mechanism. Reductionism creates the conditions of extinction, but maybe not….
Thanks for a short story that illustrates this dilemma so well.
Thanks, Christopher, for your long and thoughtful comment.
You thoughts on chance have just now inspired me to write a post on horoscopes, not quite where you are at, but interesting to me nevertheless.
The issues of science and god, chance and determinism are fascinating. I'm glad my story aroused your interest.
You've certainly set me thinking again. Thanks again, Christopher.
Oh Elisabeth, you are a beautiful writer! This covers the hidden tragedies we all endure, the public humour, the private grief and the randomess of it all but done so poetically and realistically.
My comments always seem far too ham-fisted and clumsy when it comes to your blogs!
Thanks for your generous comment, Kath.
I re-read the story and realized, not for the first time, how much this story consitutes what Gerald Murnane describes as autobiographical fiction.
It holds too many fictional components to stand as straight autobiography and yet it is probably more truthful in many ways as it is compared with how the so-called facts of the story might have revealed.
That's one of the joys of fiction, isn't it? – the way it conveys 'emotional truth' more fully than does straight non-fiction.
Yet there's a resonance to non-fiction built around the notion that this is what it was like for one person, namely the narrator or through a biographer's eyes that also appeals to me.
Thanks again, Kath.