The wind prods him and he smiles. Yes, dance, he agrees. He raises his hands deep into the sky and slaps the wind’s fat belly. The wind drums the earth, plucks and tosses the leaves. His hips submit to the rhythm and sway like a lithe wattle tree. The dancing does not fill him.
“What is he doing?” one of them asks.
The ladies, poised in a comfortable layer of steam rising from their tea, watch the writhing boy through the window.
His mother smiles, a pink flush crawls up her neck. “Tommy . . . umm . . . he’s playing I think.”
“Only child,” another of them says. “Not good for the boy. The more the merrier I say. You should have another one—or more.” She laughs, her nylon dress stretching across her soft stomach.
“We hope to,” his mother replies, and they nod, understanding hope is not always enough.
The old aboriginal lady is not welcome in the shop. He doesn’t know why, but he can see it in the faces around him. She leans down close to him, her bones making snapping noises. Her face is lined, her eyes crisp like cicada music.
“Where you from, boy?”
His mother pulls him close to her stomach, pushing his face into its flesh, her hands covering his ears.
“He’s from nowhere. He’s from here.”
They leave then, the shopping only half done, but he hears her, the old lady, buzz like an angry blowfly, “No he ain’t.”
The father buys a radio, one of the first on the street. The music plays, and the father watches his adopted son. He sees the eyes of a madman, large and hypnotised. He sees the boy’s body move with no pattern, but with jerks and twists and contortions. He sees complete nonsense.
“Get him to dance properly will you,” he flings at his wife.
He switches the radio off. The boy keeps moving.
The dance teacher has a stout walk. It fascinates him that her buttocks are so large and yet so contained. She uses a thin stick to beat time for them.
1 - 2 - 3, 1 - 2 - 3, 1 - 2 - 3, 1 - 2 - 3
When he slouches she runs the stick up his spine and pokes him in the neck. So he stands stiff, and moves his feet, knees disconnected from the faltering piano. This dancing is all tied up like a parcel the mailman might bring. He wishes someone would fetch the scissors, slice open his skin, give him freedom to move.
The mother washes the boy. She rubs the washcloth roughly over his skin, hoping the deepening brownness might be dirt. She sighs, and her own pale, freckled arms fall into her lap. Perhaps she should keep him out of the sun.
Tommy studies the grub, shifting inside itself, like a musical instrument he has seen at a fete. He copies the elegant concertina; his spine stretches to its limit and back again. The soil smells of muddy chocolate, and the grass like sugar-coated lollies. But, but—and he collapses to the ground, his body as empty and flat as a discarded snakeskin.
The mother and father of the stolen child sit across from each other.
“We can’t take him to the coast,” the mother whispers. “That’s where he came from. Someone might recognise him.”
“How? He was just a baby! For god’s sake woman, you do test a man. I’m offering you and him a holiday. Hell, if they recognise him they should be thankful he doesn’t have to sit in the bush eating witchedy grubs like them. We’re bringing him up proper, like our own. He’ll make something of himself.”
This thing they call the ocean travels to the horizon and melts together with the sky. It seems as if his blood flows through his body, spills from his pores, into the water, and is taken away to the edge of the sky. The coarse sand rolls beneath his feet; the wetness seeps into his skin to replace his blood.
He steps closer to where the sand meets layers of flat mud. The mud is a grey mirror, and he sees the clouds move through the water. Over them steps a bird, white, with grey feathers and a black tail. The boy bends his knees and lifts his chest to the sky. He feels it begin to glow white, too. The bird scuttles across the mud, leaving gentle footprints. Its head is busy.
The boy steps onto the mud; his feet stick to the glassy surface. He flicks his head from side to side, a perfect mimic of the bird’s dance. The worms make telltale bubbles. Using his mouth, he rips one from the slick mud.
The salt tastes like home. He follows his bird in short quick steps; his back is concave, his chest and head stretch high. The beat of the bird pulsates fast and flighty. More birds arrive, and they talk loudly before they settle. He walks among them, and they welcome him.
“Tom,” he hears his mother call.
The birds hear it, too. They spread their wings. He opens his arms. He feels his wrists and arms languid, strong, and feathered. Together they lift, he and his family, his lost family, and they rise up into the sky.
Copyright © 2007 by Kathryn Gossow