9 September 2019
The 2019 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize Fiction – Hanqing Li
Hanqing Li’s story Birdsong has been awarded The 2019 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of fiction. Hanqing was presented with the award at the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival at a special event, and wins a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks. Read Hanqing’s winning piece right here.
The steady hum of the electric lights overhead stutters, and the train station is cast briefly into full darkness, the lull of night settling wary and uneasy over the railways. Overhead, the trees are silent.
I moved here after you died.
It’s a little seaside town, flanking the edges of wide cliffs overhanging the ocean. There’s an air of cautiousness to the way these buildings were built, with a delicacy that seem to suggest the intention of pearly white walls and rosy cottage roofs. The kind of thing you loved.
The reality is somewhat different. The greyed paint and dark tiles appear to sink into the earth, as though they’re huddling together against the sheer matt cliffs, hiding.
Oh, and the birds here, they keep dying. It’s a morbid little detail, isn’t it? But maybe you’d appreciate it, the little clawed and winged beasts to keep you company wherever you are.
It’s a terrible sight though, the little piles of feathers and bones stretched out across the cold ground, wings spread as though they dreamt of flight even under death’s heavy blanket. The beaches are littered with them, magpies and seagulls and tiny blue wrens staining the sand like a patchwork quilt of colours. When the tide rises, we see the waves speckled with their feathers.
Nobody knows why it’s happening.
The church on the highest part of the cliffs, the stone one with the heavy wooden doors and the weather-beaten little garden, has apparently been active for the first time in years. Every day you see more of their bright red pamphlets, pinned onto doors and windows, shoved into mailboxes.
There’s something hidden in this town, some deep secret, but to tell you the truth-
I’m tired. I don’t want to have to figure out the problems of anyone except myself. I came here because the ocean was beautiful and the waves reminded me of your eyes when the sun struck it right. I came here because the cliffs by the shoreline were accessible by foot and I could sit atop them and close my eyes and listen to the wind and imagine your voice in my ear.
Have you repented today? Those pamphlets ask in bold black letters. And no, I haven’t. I have too much to repent for. I’d be there all day and have to go back the next morning too. And then I’d have to see those birds again.
For me, the tragedy isn’t in the death. It’s in the quietness of it all.
I’ve been numb to death for a while now. But can you imagine dying like that? Unseen and unheard-
I… I didn’t…. I mean….
When I die, I’m taking this whole damned world with me. Every city, every state, every insignificant little town like ours had been.
This world, this existence, there’s never been any hint of that life that was promised to me.
When I die, I’m setting the world alight. I’ll leave behind monuments and grand structures of molten stone, twisted and grotesque and reaching with half-formed fingers towards the heavens.
Maybe even you, wherever you are, will fell the heat of the ashes I leave behind.
The train comes. The headlights appear first, barely visible in the distance. I watch it pull up, the hiss of the breaks stirring the stillness of the night air.
There are only two people I can see, sitting in the same carriage, an old man and a young child.
They’re almost polar opposites. The old man is still the way an old tree is still, certain with age. There’s a bag against his side and he’s staring blankly into the distance, hands propped carefully on his lap. His knuckles jut out boldly from his thin, wrinkled fingers.
A few seats away, the child is hunched in her chair with her knees propped up before her. Under the hood she had pulled over her hair, her face is young, no more than twelve, and her eyes are cool and calculating behind the glow of her mobile phone.
Neither of them look up as I step inside.
So there’s the three of us like a bad joke. A wary child, an old man, and me, the crazy lady who moved into a town that she doesn’t want and that doesn’t want her.
There’s a long journey to come. So I closed my eyes and thought of you.
I remember your funeral well. It had been a lovely spring morning, and the flower petals were drifting from the trees, dancing in the breeze.
The sunlight had streamed through loose clouds and thin leaves, the air had been sweet with the scent of fading rain and wet soil, and it had felt like as much a cliché as tempests and black umbrellas would have been.
I didn’t cry.
Maybe I should have, or maybe I should have been angry. But there were people there who had been sad or angry for me. There had been people who’d ran into my arms and sobbed your name and there had been people who’d rammed their fingers into my chest and spat that maybe it was for the best.
I still remember the shapes of their emotions. The worn and weary threads of their sadness, the hard edges of their anger.
But for a long time after what had happened, I’d just felt numb. I couldn’t get this one image out of my head for weeks, and it wasn’t even the one of your dead body.
It was just of that one summer, when you had been sitting in the paddock with the spring lambs without a thought spared for the morning dew that had mixed with dirt and covered you head to toe in mud. You were wearing a circlet of flowers I had woven and you looked young for once.
What a wonderful girl she was. Someone had lamented to me, and I had seethed with anger at the injustice of it all. In that instant, I would have given up anything, any one of them, to bring you back.
What a jealous Hades I would make, willing to let winter go on forever if only Persephone would grace my cold and lonely realms for one more day.
But now I have the oceans to console me, and if I climb high enough then the image of the dead birds fades with distance and the town and all its problems blow away with the soft breeze.
Outside the window, the same view of the cliffs persists. The coastline dips out of view until it meets the endless dark of the ocean before rising again with the waves to blend seamlessly with the star-strewn sky.
I never know where I’m going. Sometimes I take the train all the way into the city, sometimes I get out two stations later to stand again at some other part of the cliffs, turning my vacant gaze into some other part of the same sea.
I still have trouble sleeping, so, this is what I’m doing now.
It works, a little. There’s a peacefulness to being here instead of lying wide awake in a room that is too empty, haunted by that one persistent image of you.
Here, I dream of the cliffs outside. Sometimes I dream that I’m still in the train, watching a shadow that might be me and a shadow that might be you lingering outside, staring down into the waves. Other times, I dream of standing by the edge of the cliffs, thinking about jumping in, the muscles in my legs tensing of their own accord, my joints creaking with deliberation.
Then I’d snap awake, cold from where I had fallen against the glass, and the shadows are just the lingering fog from where my breath had tainted the window panes.
The birds are here, too. The cliffs are less thick with them than the towns were, but their shapes are still visible even in the night, small patches of white like a shock of electricity where their stomachs are turned up into the sky.
I normally avoid looking at them, but tonight, under the harsh glow of the moon, I stare until I feel sick to my gut.
When they’d gone into the mountains to try and find you, they told me that it shouldn’t take long because the night had been so much brighter than usual. They told me to sit still until they brought you back safe and sound.
I didn’t listen to them, of course.
You know, nobody ever figured out if you went into the mountains to run away or to die. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. You ran off and then we found your body at the bottom of a waterfall. It happened, and it’s not like you’re around to explain to yourself to me. Not that you would. Not that you ever did explain yourself to me.
The breaks hiss. The train stops. But we’re still in the middle of nowhere, the oceans still lingering outside the window.
The features of the world outside have blended together so that it seemed all a mess of black, the clouds having gathered enough that moonlight was no longer sufficient to bring out the sharp edges and corners of the harsh landscape. The thin flood of light from the carriage serve only to reflect the interior of the train against the frosted windows.
We sat, the three of us, in absolute silence, hearing the metal of the carriage settle around us, hearing the smooth transition of the train from movement to stillness. I lift my head from the window for the first time in hours, and the muscles of my neck tense with the movement, protesting against the suddenness of action.
Beyond physicality, some part of my brain protests also against the seeping coldness of full awareness after so long spent in the warm haze of contemplation and imagery. There’s something strange about coming into sharp awareness of the existence of others, about being reminded that I wasn’t the only person in the universe.
You were never good at that. At being reminded.
We sit there, silent, for a long time. After a while, the lights in the carriage begins to stutter, slowly at first, then flickering.
Then, inevitably, the lights go out, and there is only the thin, weak glow of the child’s phone, sharp against her face. She looks unfazed, still focused on her screen, curled in her seat.
The old man doesn’t move, either. His head now bowed over the bulk of his bag, the slight illumination of the phone catches on his papery skin, highlighting the signs of age on his wearied face.
My mind is blank, internal monologue fizzing out. This has never happened before, and I’ve been on this train so often I can count the stops with my eyes closed.
A sense of panic builds up thick and heavy inside me, not because of the sudden stop but because I’ve been cast into near darkness and there is nothing to comment on anymore. I am not dreaming of you and I am not thinking of you and I cannot see the birds anymore. Funny how that’s all I am now, how I’ve been reduced down to weariness after you, how I’ve been whittled down to reveal a devastating hollowness.
Everything is always about you.
I used to love the sunsets, and the moon. I loved baking and bad poetry and the flowers that spread themselves across the soil. But you died, you went off into the hills and died silently and you took all those things with you.
I used to love the ocean for other reasons, too.
Do you know what I think? I think you went off not to kill yourself, but to prove yourself. I can’t sleep at night because there’s this little part of me always wondering if you went off into the hills to do something grand and come back with the evidence of it, of surviving in the woods alone, because of me. Because you wanted to show that you weren’t weak just because you associated yourself with me, because you couldn’t deal with the way you felt about me and wanted to prove that you were stronger than it all.
Do you know what your eulogies said? That you were young and beautiful and perfect, and I believed them. Some quietly blamed me for doing something to drive you away and some quietly told me that you were an idiot for leaving and I stored all those little pieces of emotions inside myself to carry away. I thought they were my emotions for the longest time.
I don’t know how to describe what you’ve done to me.
I still love you.
Movement. The old man stands from his seat and turns inwards, towards me.
No, towards the child, who stands up too.
With a creak that pierces the silence of the night air, the carriage doors open, and the sounds of the ocean comes flooding in, the smooth crash of water washing up against the wave-smoothed rocks. It is still dark outside, and deathly quiet, but the child steps out from the doors with no hesitation, her phone now put away, casting us all into near absolute darkness.
The man follows her, his grip still tight on his bag. He walked the way you might expect an old man to walk, hunched, with his shoulders tight and yet something in his stance conveying the idea of dignity that is not yet old, but merely antique.
Before he steps out, the faint silhouette of him turns, and I could swear that he raises one of his old and wrinkled hands to beckon towards me.
I follow with little thought.
What do I have to lose?
The chill of the salty ocean air floods over me as I step over the threshold from one sort of suffocating darkness to another.
Either my eyes have adjusted further, or the clouds must be lighter now, because I see the vague shapes of the man and the child, one tall and hunched, the other small and thin. They’ve stopped at the edge of the cliffs, almost impossibly far away considering how close I had been behind them.
It’s when I walk closer that I notice the bag, open at their feet.
“Last rites,” the old man says, and he turns toward me as he says it, his gaze piercing in the light.
The light? Is that the faint trace of dawn on the horizon? And yet it seems almost impossible that so much time should have passed already. On a normal night, I’d have enough time to take the train all the way into the city and then halfway back before the darkness even begins to lift into that grey haze which hails the sun.
I open my mouth to reply to him, a beat too late, but it doesn’t matter anyway. My voice doesn’t come. I cannot think of anything to say.
How long has it been since I’ve spoken to anyone? I had been so tired after your funeral. And I had been so tired after moving here. And I had become more tired after every sleepless night. Too weary to speak, to process any thoughts into spoken language.
He nods, as though I had replied, as though I wasn’t a coward for my silence, and turns back to his work, picking up the box and cradling it to his chest.
Without asking, I can tell that it contains ashes. There’s something about the way he holds it, treating it with a weighty consideration even as it lies light in his hands.
“I think I’ve held on to you for too long.” He says, not to the box, but to the faint haze on the horizon where it kisses the sea.
And the breeze picks up around us, skimming across the ocean surface, and I closed my eyes and wanted to hear your voice. Maybe some part of me thought that I would be able to hear the lingering echoes of love, hear “I never meant to hurt you” roll across the waves. Hear “I love you” in your voice, as a last goodbye.
I opened my eyes to watch the old man scatter the ashes into the sea.
It’s with trepidation that I notice the tears on his cheeks.
When he’s done, the box tumbles from his hands, and he draws a heavy breath, collapsing to his knees. The child moves for the first time in ages, untucking her hands from her pockets to move to his side, supporting his weight.
“Maybe I’m ready to die now,” he laughs breathlessly, and turns towards me, eyes so, so old, and so sorrowful. “Don’t you think so, girl?”
I don’t respond, but I watch him go, not towards the train, but along the coastline, fading into the distance, as the sun rises heavy and orange over the horizon.
And then I hear it.
The first sounds of birdsong as the dawn breaks.