Elisabeth Murray is a writer from Sydney who is interested in all things feminist, queer, and mental health-related. Her work has been published in Verity La, Fields Magazine, Tincture Journal (Issue Seven), Contrapasso, Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and several University of Sydney anthologies. Her novella, The Loud Earth, was published by Hologram in 2014.
This story first appeared in Issue 15 of Tincture Journal. If you like this story, please consider buying a copy.
We are a crush of bodies, but the calmest kind of crowd. Smoke and sweat is everywhere. I am far from everyone I’ve known in my life but this crowd knows me more intimately than the earth does when you’re dead, without any skin to put up a barrier.
I am standing in front of the speaker but I am standing everywhere, I am the light that smashes through blue to yellow, I am the night coming through the back of the tent, through the gaps between people, so there’s no space anymore. My body takes the force of the music like the ocean when you use none of your muscles against it. There is the cold metal railing against my arms and my skin is good now, no longer a barrier, and my eyes are shut and the strength of the earth is inside me, all the time it has lived in my bones.
I open my eyes to a girl so close she seems part of my own strength. Her hair is like ochre and she is wearing a skirt the colour of the centre of the continent viewed from so high it is more like the idea of red.
She is yelling something, her mouth hardly real. But it’s all real, just a kind of real I’ve never known before. We are jumping with the rest of the crowd, and on stage everyone wears a smile like the girl, they are jumping with us, cajón, guitar, bass, flute, djembe stronger than an ocean.
When the end comes we are shivering, coming out of the waves, a moment of panic, not sure if we can face the bare sand. My head spins then I have hold of the girl’s hand and our sweat is the same.
“I’m not locked up anymore!” she cries and I turn, smiling at her.
“I was just thinking that,” I say, because our energy is the same, whether thought energy or sweat energy.
“Why don’t you say it?” she cries, and we are moving fast out of the tent, as if we need to get somewhere, bumping into people who are not irritated because there is no space between us anyway.
“I’m not locked up no more!” I say, feeling my skin get cold without fear as we reach the night at the back of the tent.
Now the chaos of the festival is not the same as the tent and I am gripping her hand to keep me from it, from the smoke and beer and laughter and clanging guitars and the swells of people without purpose, only various tempers and urges. I am feeling the barriers of my skin as fragile as a sheet thrown over furniture to fix crime in place. The grease of big pans and kebabs, pasta, waffles, steak, doughnuts, gelato, mud, whiskey and coke, grass diced by bare feet, I feel it moving through my sinuses, the swamp of people treading the same place over and over, hotdogs, quinoa, bacon, spinach burgers, I am feeling the way I felt in another life, the chaos of a crowd that is unified but discrete, none of it caring for you, abandoning you yet still trying to erode you. I am gripping her, feeling the strength in my blood as if I am witness to this crowd and held inside it at once.
Past the gates the night is purple with smoke. Black feet and glittering eyes. We pass a car park silent as a disused mine, steel and chrome like things dug out of the earth and found to be useless. Through the main gates where the highway rushes like something distant, a creek behind a hill. I can’t remember where I slept last night and I have been told things like this should worry me but it only feels like a dream that goes missing when you wake, though it stays in your body as a hole you finger occasionally to make sure it is still empty. When our hands drop I feel her sweat in my palms, slipping in the ridges.
After a long time we come to the beach. The sea is dark under the bluish sky like a collection of blood. The sand holds the indentations of a crowd, footprints up the dunes. We breathe in the salt as if we are breathing each other’s breath. I feel a deep sadness, but a healing salty one, knowing now that all those days when I was detached from the earth and my people an artificial barrier was erected using my skin that should have been subtle, not hard, and that they only erected it because it suited them even though it would never heal me. I want to tell her this but it’s something that makes my skin tingle rather than thoughts that could be words. We lie in the sand resting on each other. After a while she jumps up waving her arms.
A group of four comes into view, dressed in bright colours, barefoot. One by one they hug her and she introduces me as “the crazy girl I was dancing with at the most epic show you’ve ever seen, all this crazy sacred energy like you’ve never felt before.” Then we are watching the waves come in, dark and slick then white and crumbled, and I see that everything is matter and energy at once though I didn’t know it when I was alone in my hard skin watching the sun through the sugar glass.
A boy offers me a piece of Easter egg that a girl has smashed against the sand then opened like the petals of a red aluminium flower. The chocolate takes over my mouth. I eat it under his gaze because I’m not aware of the barriers between me and other people, between looking and feeling. We are all watching each other from inside the wildness, the same energy.
“You eat in such a crazy way,” he says opening his mouth as if he cannot help but want to try it himself.
“She is crazy!” says a girl with a yellow woollen shawl and white chattering teeth.
I laugh, my mouth full of chocolate. I am feeling the tiniest strangeness in my chest.
“Do you know the song ‘Moonglow’?” says the boy watching me eat. “Billie Holiday sings it.”
“No,” I say, but I remember there was an old lady in the adjacent room who used to listen to Billie Holiday on her CD player.
“It’s a crazy song,” he says and reaches across me for another piece of chocolate so I feel the softness of his arm which is an unnatural white in the darkness.
Another boy is wearing a purple shirt with ‘Heaven’ across it. He is smiling as if everyone is admiring it and nothing can bother him. There is a girl in overalls the colour of electronic light.
“You know,” she says, “all I can think about is this is such an Instamoment. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Why?” I say.
“Because I told myself I’d hitchhike across the country without a phone, no technologies, only iPod, because it’d just be stupid for me to do it without an iPod.”
“Have you made it now?” I ask.
“Made it across the country. We’re on the coast now.”
She turns her head as if the place is one of those moving panoramas that Victorian people found full of suspense.
“No. I’m just starting.”
There is tiredness in my bones as if they are feeling her future. “How will you charge your iPod?” I ask.
“Cars, hostels. There’s power on the road.” She pushes her hand into the sand and it vanishes. “I’m going to listen to all the Indigo Girls’ albums over and over.”
The boy who was watching me eat asks, “Live albums too?”
“And Rarities,” she says. “I want to relive those decades. Even though I never really lived them to start with. I mean actually I was born when the first album came out. I mean the major label ten-song release, not the eleven-song independent. I was thinking Frente! but then I thought, it doesn’t matter about the country the music’s from, it more matters about how it speaks to me, you know? The Indigo Girls just have my energy, or I have their energy, I guess. Plus Frente! only have two LPs, the rest are EPs. It’d be a lot of repetition.” She moves her hand around under the sand.
“Yeah,” I say. “It matters more about the energy.”
“Right!” she shouts. Her voice travels far across the beach. “Hey,” she whispers. “You could come with me. I’d let you have one earbud.”
The red girl turns. “She’s coming with us,” she says.
“We could all three go,” says the girl who has very green eyes I notice now, though nothing like the colour of her overalls.
“I can’t,” I say. “It’d be my dream to do that, but I’ve travelled really far, I don’t even know where I am now or where I’m going next, and I need one place to look after me.”
“That seems really true,” says the girl in overalls, nodding. She takes her hand out of the sand and lies back with her head on her pack and her hands on her stomach.
I lean against her knees and the boy who was watching me eat rests his head on my stomach. I feel the softness of his hair through my shirt. We are tangled on the sand like a new or ancient creature beached. I am so tired everything happens in a new syntax, slow and fluid. The warmth moves from the others to me and out of me to the others, with the waves, the breath of people, the rustling of sand, the wind that in the half-dark seems not part of the beach but something stray and searching.
As soon as the sun comes it spreads heat. I am strung out thinly like the yarn of foam left on the sand. I am strung up between the depths of dream and the world here that I can touch. I press my skin to be sure it’s not a dream, blurred the way it was so many times or, at other times, indestructible, so I would try to break my limbs to see the bone slip out of the skin.
In the steady pinking of the beach that sits on my eyes as if I’m wearing a crazy pair of sunnies, I’m not sure if I’m bounded or sealed. Everyone sits up and stretches and rubs their eyes to make the world they see the true one. The tangle is individual. Everything is pink and orange.
For a moment I am taken over by longing to be in the white safety of somebody else’s care, where I don’t have to worry if my skin has boundaries or if I’m nothing but wax. Then the sun is here and everybody looks different, they might have new personalities in the light. The boy who was watching me eat has hair the colour of butter and his skin is rougher and less white. She is not so red and her lips are pink and she seems smaller.
The others are in the sand smoking a joint and looking less bright but still sparkling where their clothes finish.
“We’re going to hitchhike,” says the red girl. “Come along if you will.”
“It’s the will of the universe,” says the boy in the ‘Heaven’ shirt, holding the smoothed Easter egg wrapper up to the sun and looking through a hole.
“I’m going alone,” says the girl in overalls. “If I see you on the road I’ll see you on the road!”
“Do you feel that?” says the girl in the yellow shawl, breathing out a great gust and not looking cold anymore.
As soon as we leave I’m not sure I don’t want to be back there with them, not sure which path might lead me back to the sickness without warning.
“I knew you were crazy all along,” says the red girl, her voice deeper from tiredness.
“I am,” I say. “But now it’s a kind of crazy that lets me walk across a beach without being afraid.”
The boy catches my hand. Our sweat is the same. The girl catches my other.
“The world is so slow and ringing,” she says.
“I’m so tired all the syntax is warped,” I say. “My body is ringing from the music last night.”
“I want to eat a burger with fake cheese and a coke,” says the boy.
“Me too,” I say. “And I want to find the back of a truck to nap in.”
We yawn into the sun, waiting to sleep on top of the rumbling of the road, something like healing.