Fall 2018 Editor Picks

The Cleansing

By Megan Anning

To whom it may concern,

I’m writing this because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want to have to write or think about her. But I love her. That’s the reason why I’m bothering with this. Writing isn’t my thing. I don’t like to strain myself. Celeste was always straining herself. It was stressful being around her when she was in one of her moods. If she wasn’t painting a wall of our rented house with a forest of trees that were multicolored and alive looking, then she was chain smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking scotch straight, bent over a chunky old thing she called a computer, tapping away at all hours.

‘Changing the world.’

That’s what she’d say at dawn, propped up against the frame of my bedroom door, looking as haggard as a corpse. Despite everything she said, she wasn’t stupid. I wish she’d been a bit more stupid to tell the truth, a bit less active in her head, where all the monsters lived. But I’ve just jumped straight in about Celeste. And I think you, whoever you are, should know from the start that I’m not writing for you. I couldn’t care less about any of that. I’m not one of those people who has even read many books, like real literature books, so you don’t have to worry about cottoning on to any learned allusions to other learned books. Celeste used to go on and on about it: how I should know stuff like that.

‘Important stuff,’ she’d say.

But fiction isn’t my thing. I don’t know much about it. Why should I? I never studied it. Celeste did, or tried to. Just one of the many things she tried. But I’ll get to all of that. Mostly though I just want to get back to her. That’s all I want. You always want someone when you can never have them again.

A bit about myself so you know who’s taking up your time: I’m your average guy, a weedy one. I’ve been told I look undernourished and sick, but I put that down to my Ukrainian heritage. When I was there it shocked me how familiar their sallow skinned faces were. I like to draw. Celeste hated my drawings. She openly mocked me and said outright I should do better things with my time, but always in a friendly way. I liked that we could tease each other. That reminds me of the time we had a row. It was soon after I showed her one of my drawings. She’d started on about how it looked like the plans for some kind of alien space ship.

‘Were you listening to techno on repeat when you were working on that?’

Celeste was holding onto a towel having just got out of the shower. I wasn’t in the mood to be mocked so I told her she didn’t know shit about anything, and then we stood face to face for a very long time shouting at each other. Shouting! And loving every minute of it. It’s not often a guy can have a girl as a friend, and live like a married couple for years and argue naked, but in a towel, and not be a couple.

So I’m not the manliest man I guess you could say. And I’m married now. No kids. We’re happy. I love Trish, but since Celeste died, I’ll admit I’ve started to wonder about love. The forms it takes. The different varieties. I guess if I had to categorize the love I have for Trish, it would be in the ‘Older and Wiser’ box. The ‘It’s What People Eventually Do’ type. The ‘I Don’t Want To Be Alone’ sort. With Celeste, I didn’t know I loved her when we lived together. She was like an itch on your big toe: even though you scratch and scratch, the itch is never satisfied. That was what it was like with me and Celeste. She would slap me if she knew I’d likened her to an itch on a big toe.

‘Is that what you think of me?’

She’d say it with her left eyebrow arched high, and her left-hand waving about. She’d be dangling a cigarette as though she were an actress in a French black and white film rather than a strung out twenty something working in a Moroccan restaurant for peanuts while failing subject after subject of a university degree.

Out of respect, I won’t say how long it took her to finish her degree. But she’d tell you to your face if she were here. It was a sore point for her. She was meant to go far.

‘She was supposed to be a lawyer.’

That’s what her mother had said to the psychiatrist. It was heartbreaking to hear Celeste talk about it. She’d get all dark in the face, and I swear sometimes I could see her eyes sag with sadness. When she saw her friend, the one she’d gone to school with, smiling a big white smile on the news at night, Celeste would go quiet, and dark. I knew not to bother her then. We sat on the couch together and watched the news, but it was just noise to fill the terrible silence. Once she turned to me suddenly:

‘How can she smile like that? How come it’s so wide? Is it real? It’s like it’s painted on. Or like it’s plastic. You know?’

And in her eyes was the most confused child. I didn’t like to look, but I always said something she wanted to hear. And she was usually fine then. She would start talking incessantly about an obscure detail of her day, like the tiny ins and outs of a conversation she’d had with a person at the shops, at the 7-11, or at Centrelink. Or she’d tell me about the clothes a man was wearing at the bus stop. She’d talk as though those tiny things were just as important as anything on the tv, just as important as going far, and being ‘a go getter.’ She was convincing herself of something. She was making the darkness disappear with her chattering about the tiniest details of the smallest conversations with people she hardly knew. I didn’t know it then, but those were the times I loved her the most. Those were the times I felt trapped with her in an obscure art house film that was made by an obscure art house director, and for a while the whole world faded into blackness at the edges of our little film set. I knew at those times that Celeste was content with not being normal.

I just want to make sense of what happened between us. If she were here she’d laugh and tell me to shut up.

‘Between us?’ she’d say, ‘what are you talking about?’

There’d be an elusive tongue in her cheek and a white flash in her eyes. She was always enticing me to love her. That’s what she needed to be all the time: loved. But most of all she just wanted to be normal. It was kind of like her mantra. I can’t tell you how many times I told her not to even go there, that normal is overrated and nobody is normal anyway, and it’s all just a con by the powers that be to screw with your mind and keep everyone in line. But even though she’d agree with me, I knew she never, ever believed me.

We met at university. I was sitting on a concrete ledge when Celeste walked towards me from the Social Sciences buildings. She started smiling. So did I. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but when I think back to that smile, I realise it was a proper one, you know? It was unguarded and real. It said: ‘hi, I’m a fellow human being that finds you semi-interesting as a fellow human being and would you be interested in stopping here for a while to pursue exactly why I feel interested in you in a semi way?’ Sorry if that was long winded. Like I said, I’m not a writer as such. Celeste would kill me if she knew I was writing this about her. I can hear her now:

‘You need to show don’t tell, show don’t tell. Why can’t you understand that? Oh, I know why, because you’re stupid Celeste. That’s all you are.’

I found her saying that over and over one night, or morning rather: it was 2am. She was pacing around the house, all the lights blaring, hitting herself in the forehead. Then she flopped back on the couch and lay there with open, vacant eyes for a really long time. Hours maybe. I can’t be sure. I went back to bed.

That couch is the only piece of furniture I remember her ever owning, and she didn’t even pay for it. It had materialized one afternoon, dusty and used, on the back of an arborist’s ute:

‘Thanks to my celestial powers.’

I can still see her saying this with a shrug of her shoulders. Just the day before we’d agreed a new couch was in order. And there it was, a special delivery:

‘From the universe.’

Those were her words. I could see she had no doubt the universe really was the mysterious donor of the mysterious couch. The single bed on wheels we were using had become a pain in the ass. It rolled out from under us and away from the wall every time we sat on it. We had to jimmy it back into place by peddling with the balls of our feet. The arborist had an apprentice with him that day. He was a young guy and took pains to explain that the couch would really suit his jam room. It was red velvet, with an odd elongated back and square arms which gave it a 70s Ziggy Stardust feel. Must have been home-made as you could feel the flimsy wooden frame through the fabric and the stapling work at the back was a bit shoddy.

‘It’s on its way to the dump lassie.’

So said the grubby arborist who had taken a liking to Celeste. At the sight of that couch Celeste had wafted down the front stairs all sparkly eyed, a vision from heaven in the midst of that mundane afternoon with her halter necked paisley dress which trailed along the ground behind her. She proceeded to sprinkle her ‘love me’ dust over the man, the keeper of the couch. She had a way of sweet talking people into instantly loving her, a knack for speaking to complete strangers as though they were old friends. Thenceforth the couch belonged to Celeste.

Thinking of all of the crazy things Celeste used to do – I can hardly believe she’s gone. I guess that’s another reason why I’m bothering to write this. I need to make sense of how she died. The twisted, old tree, and that paddock. It all seems so impossible, so unreal, so like a movie. I just can’t believe she would do what she did. She wasn’t stupid, but what she did is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard anyone doing. I blame it on the quackery, the homeopathy she got conned into by that weird guy with the ratty beard. What was his name again? Frank, or maybe it was Donavon, something dodgy like that. There should be a law against it. Samuel Hahnemann, and all his disciples need to be called to account for their actions.

‘Like cures like.’

And then there was that family genealogy research she got obsessed by. I don’t believe she really was related to Mary Anning. But Celeste got it into her head that she was, and for a while there she insisted we get out of the city every weekend to go to the beach to search for shells.

‘She sells seashells at the seashore. Come on Caspar, say it! Faster! Faster!’

‘She sells seashells at the shesore. See shells shesells…’

When my tongue got all twisted she’d crack up and lose it. She’d say it back to me at a million miles an hour then make a face like a child as if to say,

‘I beat you!’

I watched her as she went off on her own onto the rocks. She would stand looking out at the sea with the wind whipping her hair, her skirt blowing about. She stood and stared or sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, prodding the blow holes with a stick. I knew she was half somewhere else at those times, so deeply involved in whatever was going on in her mind that she may as well have been in a parallel universe. I let her be. We were good like that. We let each other be. She’d always call me over to look at a sea cucumber or a crab. She loved the anemones and would sit on her haunches looking at them recoil from her finger.

Thanks to Celeste and her obsession I know that Mary Anning was hit by lightning as a baby. It happened under a tree. Mary survived but the woman holding her died. It all sounds a bit suspect if you ask me, a bit of Celeste-inspired-bollocks, especially the part about her being a docile and quiet baby before the lightning struck, then miraculously developing into Britain’s brainiest paleontologist. According to Celeste, Mary’s lightning charged blood trickled down the family tree into her veins, which is why she was cursed, why she was wayward.

‘I’m not normal.’

‘Don’t say that Celeste. You know there’s no normal.’

It never made any difference what I said though, and with that Donovan or Frank or whatever his name was hanging around, filling her head with homeopathic rubbish about ‘like cures like’, and miasma, and being tainted by the lightning’s poison, Celeste didn’t stand a chance. I can still see her wandering about the house in the early morning light, wearing her long cotton kimono with the cherry blossoms on it, the one with wide square sleeves that blew in the air behind her as she glided about the place.

‘Like cures like, lightning cures lightning, like cures like, lightning cures lightning…’

She was rubbing her hands together as though she was trying to wipe them clean, trying to rid them of some internal disease or poison. Celeste could often be found wandering around the house at night like a zombie on repeat, drifting wild eyed through the rooms.

Her and the rat bearded guy obsessively made pots of green tea and spoke with hushed tones when they met on the verandah to discuss:

‘The cleansing.’

That’s what she called it. When I asked her what ‘the cleansing’ was, she looked out of the corner of her elfin eyes and simply said,

‘You’ll see.’

‘I’ll see what?’

‘You’ll see when I’m better. You won’t know me.’

‘Nobody knows you Celeste.’

She turned away and sipped her tea. I stood still for a long while just looking at her profile, at her pointy mouse nose, her stringy hair that hung by her cheeks, her sad eyes. I might have been the one person in the world who knew Celeste the most, and yet I hardly knew her. She hardly knew herself.

But I’m going to have to call it a night. Trish is calling. Tomorrow I’ll write about the gnarled tree, how it was found split down the middle, like an enormous axe had sliced it open to show blackened, charred wood; how a leather-bound book, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, was found by the trunk; how Celeste had picked up the book at a used bookstore when she was looking to:

‘Beat the miasma out of a tainted solution. Out of my solution. Out of my blood. Samuel Hahnemann says you need a leather-bound book to become normal Caspar. Mary’s lightning is my lightning. It makes perfect sense!’

‘Paradise Lost’ was found without a scratch on it yet all the surrounding grass was singed black. And Celeste, well she was found –

I don’t want to talk about it now. Besides Trish is calling. But tomorrow I’ll fill in the details. I need to. I think I might be losing it a bit with all these memories. Lately at the beach, I keep catching glimpses of Celeste out of the corner of my eye. She’s standing on the rocks looking out at the sea, her long kimono billowing in the wind. When I turn to look, she’s gone. Sometimes I think I can hear her voice whispering,

‘She sells seashells on the seashore.’