Falling Out of Time
An excerpt from Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide
It was February, a few months after my birthday, and I was restless. I’d felt this way before: I knew how to recognise the dragging sensation at the base of my ribs, the curious itch in the pit of my stomach, the deep fidget that distracted me from the page I was reading, deafened me to music, and cast me adrift, moving steadily away from the room in which I had sat, the house in which I had always been at home.
Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground. Along bluestone alleys too narrow for any modern vehicle, I remembered a story told by my History teacher, Mrs F—, of a series of young women who, in the years immediately after the Great War, had been murdered while walking home alone down these streets at night. I recalled the witness statement, taken from a hospital bed, of the one woman who had managed to escape her pursuer, and her description of his footsteps behind her, which echoed across the cobbles. And the ghost of that echo followed me during those late afternoon walks, as I quickened my step from one laneway down into another.
Elsewhere, and on other days, I discovered the memory of a buried waterway from the east-west dip in the cut at the rear of my family’s back garden, a creek that had fed the orchards which once covered that ground. As a child, confined to the back garden, I’d climbed to the highest forked branch of a surviving apple tree, planted myself in its angular cup, and surveyed the land that spread in all directions around me. Later, when my legs were long enough, the silvered crossbeams of the back fence became the rungs of the first ladder I learned to climb. Teetering on the top beam, I gripped the timber with both hands, lent all my weight into my palms, jack- knifed my small body and swivelled so that I was facing the house and garden, the one surviving apple tree. Then I stepped backwards over the edge, and let my body drop.
Time stretched its limbs into the space between the top of the fence and the ground below. As my feet left behind the rub of familiar timber, I opened my hands, lifted my arms, and closed my eyes. I felt the world bend and flex into the pause around me. Only when my feet were on firm ground did I open my eyes again.
Once on the far side of the garden fence, I took time to take my bearings. I backed up against the timber slats that cut me off from the house behind, and looked for the landmarks I had worked hard to learn from the high forked branch of my tree. But where I looked for a rise in the land, I found a dip; and where I anticipated a narrow space, I discovered open ground instead. Perhaps because that first drop over the fence left me with an impression of having fallen outside time, I can no longer recall how long I stood there, with my back pressed into the timber, fingering ragged splinters while I scanned the horizon in search of a landmark by which I could direct my course. But I do remember the feel of the ground beneath my feet. The way the grass tickled my bare ankles where the lawnmower hadn’t reached it so close to the fence. The long silvered splinter that dug into the meaty part of my palm and finally prompted me to step out, away, down the hill I hadn’t seen from my perch, and into the space that cut me off from my house, my house from others to the north.
I roamed that new land with the blinkered vision of an explorer, dividing everything I saw between sights that were different from the ones I already knew, and others that were similar. The damp smell that reached out from the dip where the creek bed was buried, the deeper green of the grass there, the greater height of the birches and poplars leading down into it, the fog that rose from there in winter and settled ankle deep, blinding me to the curve of the earth: all of these were a familiar echo of the running creek nearby. The fence line to the north was the same silvered grey as my own back fence, with the same plumb grain, the same splintered touch. And the camphor laurel, which grew around the dogleg of the cut, recalled Grandma’s backyard Fairy Tree, the lowest branches of which reached towards the ground as if they sought to find an anchor there, earth to plant their own roots in and grow.
Inside, behind its waxy curtain of rust-green leaves, the Fairy Tree was home to creatures with padded feline paws and an ursine gait, animals that clawed the ground, breathed mist into the air, and snarled a territorial chorus that resounded in the green nocturnal gloom. Lit as if through the stained submarine glass of a shipwreck, that tree was like the magic crystals I watered in the bathroom sink at home, which grew from a sandy granular deposit into the turreted skyline of an exotic metropolis. It held the salty promise of genii, a handful of granted wishes, locked rooms full of lucre. By contrast, the tree in the cut was short. Its lowest branches were trimmed, its leaf-litter regularly raked. But the leaves of the cut tree still rusted red in spring, and in autumn the bonfires lit from its trimmed branches and the poplars’ fallen leaves covered the land with smoke and sent a rally of cracks ricocheting from fence to fence until the last echo disappeared around the dogleg with a ripple and the cut fell silent once more.
After the fires had burned themselves out, I would climb the back fence to turn over the ash and walk the rings of scorched circles left behind. By now, I knew by heart the number of fence rungs to climb. The drop down from the highest beam to the ground on the other side no longer left me with the impression of falling out of time. I left my eyes open when I fell. I forgot to measure the moment I crossed from one side of the back fence to the other. And the loss nestled sound, but didn’t sleep. It rested in my belly, gathering its strength.