chapter one of “Dancing Lessons”
(a work in progress)
“All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.”
– W.H. Auden
Life does not unfold as a story unfolds. Characters do not always stay in character. Even
the sky wavers, to prove that nothing is still. Blue shifting slightly at noon, and there are
unnamed shapes behind that.
Past is only past once we have understood its core.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was my name. My father named me Cassie,
not Cassandra. I was named after his favorite sail boat. Just Cassie. This is the whispered
word that held an infant safe.
My name was never lost to me. Like a gentle boat, it has carried me here, amazing me.
Even when the water was so black that consciousness was lost, it guided me back towards
Memory had no shape until I was three or four because pure happiness has no shape. It
has no limits. It is an unreasoned, unreasonable delight. Shadows do not fall distinct
from their objects, and sorrow is the honest face of sun. In a photo I am laughing and I
love you. I am one year old.
I do not remember the instance of the first shadow. But I remember my mother rushing
into my bedroom in Indonesia, an annex in the cooler part of the house. We knelt in the
thickest past of a tropical summer. By then I was three and had learned to read. Already,
by then, I could hardly sleep.
My mother’s graver love, as she scolded me now, proved my name was a burden, as well
as a talisman against darkness. My mother foresaw what I only felt.
One morning golden light woke me while my family slept. My vocal cords
flooded suddenly with names and I sang as a bird sings, robustly greeting the
dawn and composing impromptu songs: “Toni Jamie Janet Dina Steven Susan
and all the names of everyone alive.”
The world, then, was small. Like Aristotle, who could honestly say that he had
read every notable work of his times, I, too, could honestly say.
I was six, at that time, and had started to insist on becoming distinct from others.
Melbourne offered dry, dusty earth and copper light on the green trees. My country
was frequently in drought.
“Water the flowers, love, but not the lawn because there’s a shortage.”
My room: a small bungalow a few steps away from the rest of the house. Three
of its walls had windows, and the curtains were faded yellow. The ceiling was
low and sloped towards my bed. A bedroom almost like children’s attics in
fables but grounded.
I formed my identity in that room.
Elsewhere in the house, like a pearl-shelled satellite moon, is my mother’s desk.
She is a freelance journalist. There are stories in a scrapbook. Sometimes she
writes about parenthood. I am famous, I tell myself. On her desk, Helen Garner’s
latest novel Honour and Other People’s Children.
Countless hours were spent arranging and rearranging my room. Up until the
day I left home, it was a live jigsaw puzzle.
My bookshelves blossomed, were pruned, and bloomed again.
My dad is a good carpenter, he made us a beautiful go cart. It hurts me to remember
how beautiful it was. We were so proud. It was painted dark red. Real tires, even a
steering wheel. It was made of hardwood. Its aspect was grave.
In a photo, my little sister and I are sitting in cart. She is blond and small. My hair is dark
brown, not black. I often clarify this fact. I am the big sister.
Tenses blur. I bring my homework to him and he helps me. I will make a brilliant
architect he says. He gives me a draftboard and mechanical pencils.
My mind senses structures in the air, he thinks ‘a gift’.
Two years later my father left us. My chest hurt constantly, and now my room
was a stranger’s, an abstract code. And I smoke as I write this book so my chest
will hurt as much.
There was a small painting of a young girl with dark hair on the wall of my
bedroom, then. Her eyes still seem to follow me.
I cannot stop crying and cannot understand.
His suitcases, collapsed against the wall.
After my father left we were very poor. A man delivered our groceries once per week:
pasta, apple juice, some vegetables and ice cream. Milk still came in glass bottles, left
on the front doorstep.
My sister and I ate the yellow layer of real cream from the top with spoons. I did not
yet know the word ‘poor’. I did not miss objects at all.
Years later I told my mother this.
I read and read a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale about a young orphan who wakes up
to find a stranger has been in the night and put warm rugs on the floor, and lit a roaring
fire in the cold hearth, hung cheery pictures on the wall.
Each night, I would imagine all the kindnesses I would show her and her new warmth
School is our first exposure to the elements. I had been longing to go since the day I
learned of them, and had started earlier than some of my peers.
New cracks appeared in my world and a word for each fracture, until the words had
more meaning than the pain that occasioned them.
My first school friend was named Toni. I named my yellow budgie after her. One day
the budgie was gone when I came home, and my mother told me he had flown away
to live in Africa.
This made me sad. I don’t know the way, to follow him.
My first report card: “Cassie is a very intelligent girl, but has difficulty finishing tasks.
She becomes upset and says I can’t do it.”
Words so thick in the air, now, a kind of gauze.
After my father left, school became a sort of purgatory. Its color is deep violet. The
events did not register properly. I was popular, I was loved.
All I have of that time is words, a code that sunlight attempts to crack.
After my father left, there was no longer simple day. There were boys and girls. There
were teachers. There were mothers. Relatedness and its opposite, as life developed
I would see lines between trees, like power lines, to feel optimistic.
Sexual abuse is like forgetting your name. I know ‘sorrow’ and ‘love’ to be distinct … no
longer the indivisible sun.
One day my sister, me, and two other children were invited inside a stranger’s house.
The stranger liked to draw children. To trace the lines of purity with blackest chalk. Those
dense hours exist somewhere outside of time, outside of all that is presently known to
My mother says we both came home saying we had gotten out through a window, we
came home early from school our teeth chattering holiding hands and remembers the
desolate thought: “I’ve lost them.”
She remembers, from the 1950s, images of kittens drowning in a bucket.
Night doubtless fell that afternoon, elsewhere in the world.
Now I was no longer a big sister, I was a mute, dark and riderless horse in a strange land,
galloping without pause.
“Words abandon us”, you say.
Such violations are not dramatic. Rather, they are so commonplace that they are hard to
describe. They are particles in the air we breathe.
I excelled at school.
Time simply does not behave. We count the minutes, hours and days. We trust that we
have ordered the sequence of events. But past is not past until we have understood its
core, and what shall we make of tall shadows at 3pm?
Within a second there exist entire worlds. That flicker in your eyes as you behold a
mirror is a possibility.
Do you test the door’s lock in sleep? Will it open for you?
My father visits every other weekend. Sometimes he smells like wine, and his words
loop like a cassette tape around his history. He is a civil engineer, he has been to New
Guinea, Indonesia, otherness building roads.
One day when I’m sixteen he promises he’ll show me Port Moresby, the city where I
The doctor said in Pigeon English: “she big beautiful white baby in our hospital.” My
father says I spoke tongues I have now forgotten.
I remember a black dentist who gave customers jellybean candies and grinned broadly
and said, with glee, “to make sure we see you soon!”
In Indonesia we had a fridge with taps, for drinking water. Also we drank quinine to
prevent Malaria. A powdered orange drink called Tang. My mother mostly says how
much she hated the huge cockroaches in the tropics. An endless battle to kill them and
keep the kitchen safe.
After monsoons, there would sometimes be two feet of water in the house. All the houses
were on stilts, like sieves.
In Indonesia a tall cement giraffe, in the garden. Too hot to sit on.
Jolting awake I am twenty-two and have just been released from hospital. I pray every
day and night for a merciful death. My lover is a statue. Or else he is like a museum:
theoretical, historical, brilliant, abstract.
At that time, he is also tender, solicitous.
I book into an upscale tattoo parlor one afternoon. I plan ahead and spend my entire $200.
I show the man there a detailed illustration from a book about birds, and say ‘draw this
This animal, with its bright plumes, is the national emblem of New Guinea.
Before hospital I hallucinated a bird of paradise on my shoulder who would protect me
The bird flew lightly from my mind, she came true. Here, I’ll show you.
All things that are,
once were dreamed.