Alyzon whitestarr, p.1
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       Alyzon Whitestarr, p.1

           Isobelle Carmody
slower 1  faster
Alyzon Whitestarr

  For my brother Matthew,

  who talked philosophy at seven …


  The sky was a soup of colors swirled together, and the sea was restless under it. Waves lapped the shore fretfully, sighing.

  A man and woman walked from their car down a steep curving road to the sea, wearing bathing suits, towels slung around their necks. His shorts were too heavy to dry well. Both wore sunglasses for no other reason than because they had worn them all day. As they rounded the road, they saw the shallow beach.

  “Well,” the man said, and they both stopped.

  There was a naked pregnant woman, wading in the sea; they were both shocked and fascinated. A barefoot man wearing jeans and no shirt prowled the shore, while a big older woman clad in a voluminous dark plum dress and a shawl was seated on a blanket facing the pair. A slight girl with mouse-colored hair seated beside her was almost hidden. The seated woman’s brooding presence suggested some ritual in progress—a spell or an archaic binding. The girl might have been a sprite.

  “Well,” the woman murmured at last, shaking herself slightly to dislodge an inexplicable premonition of danger. “Let’s go down.”

  Only when they reached the beach did they realize there were others; a plump youth of some eighteen or nineteen years peering into rock pools; a girl sitting on a rock combing her hair, which some trick of the sunlight rendered faintly green. The attention of these young people, like that of the man and the older woman, was focused on the pregnant woman.

  As they drew nearer the strange group, the woman with the sunglasses noticed that the man in the jeans was extraordinarily good-looking. When he turned to smile at the newcomers, she felt the charm of the smile and responded.

  It was not until they had come to the end of the path that they saw there was yet another girl curled under a bush at the rim of the beach. She was biting her nails. Even from a distance it was clear she had gone too far and was hurting herself. Unlike the others, her eyes were not on the woman in the water but on the handsome older man.

  Feeling self-conscious, the couple piled towels, shoes, and sunglasses together. They swam, keeping carefully to one side of the inlet, leaving the other to the pregnant woman. When they were drying themselves, the woman in plum walked past them to an old van parked in the dunes. She returned with a steaming mug of liquid.

  “All the comforts of home,” said the man.

  “It’s herbal medicine for her,” she said, nodding toward the pregnant woman. “She’s in labor.”

  The couple turned to stare openly at the pregnant woman. She had come into the shallows, and the man was now positioned behind her, supporting her back with his chest. The watching couple suddenly understood. What was about to take place was both extraordinary and utterly common place: a woman was about to give birth. At any given moment there must be millions of them in the world.

  The woman resumed her sunglasses automatically and, remembering her own labor in a hospital, felt an echo of the pain, the need to push, the excitement of it all that no one had ever told her about. She could see now that the pregnant woman was doing the shallow panting. Her long red hair was lying in damp streamers down her back and across her swollen belly. It made the woman watching feel both afraid and thrilled.

  Tonight she would dream of a woman screaming.

  The man at her side wondered at a couple who would offer themselves and the woman’s pain and their unborn child up to that sunset, that sea. What did it mean in a world of hospitals and doctors and nuclear fission? What was it saying to the world? (To him?) He remembered the rank stench as his own daughter was born. How primal the birth, despite the hospital bed, the hovering doctor.

  As the couple left, the sun was setting and clouds saturated with night were beginning to reach long fingers over the sky. Again the woman experienced a stab of unspecified danger, and it occurred to her that her fear was not of the family on the beach, but for them.

  The man glanced in the rearview mirror as he drove away. Two girls were leading a skittish brown horse between them across the road. They seemed barely able to control it, and he wondered what would happen if it got away from them.

  It starts with my family, and in a way that’s the whole story.

  There’s my mother, Zambia. You probably won’t have heard of her. She’s the artist, Zambia Whitestarr. Then there’s my da, Macoll Whitestarr. His stage name is Mac, and he’s the lead guitarist in a band you’ve probably never heard of that plays a lot of improvised music. Then there’s us kids: my older brother, Jesse; my older sister, Mirandah; me, Alyzon; Serenity, who tries to make us call her Sybl; and last but not least our baby brother, Luke.

  People always raise their eyebrows when I say how many of us there are. “Five,” they say, lifting their voice up at the end to show how they can hardly believe it. I guess we do have a pretty big family by ordinary standards. Mostly people have two or three kids. Somebody told me the size of a normal family is two-and-a-half-kids. I don’t know how they figure the half. I mean, what’s half a kid? A baby? In that case there’s four and a half of us, Luke being the half, only what he lacks in size he makes up for in Starr quality.

  Ha ha.

  Da always says we have a cast as big as Ben Hur, which is this old movie about half-naked muscle men who wrestle lions. Da loves movies. He always says if he had another life, he would be a film director. Not the kind that makes movies about giant dinosaurs or meteors flattening New York; art-house movies where you don’t have any idea what they’re about, but you can’t help watching them because they are sooo weird, and then you come out and the world seems to have shifted a bit while you were inside.

  Da says that’s the whole point of those movies: to put you off balance; to make you see things from a different angle. I always answer: “We Whitestarrs are unbalanced enough already.”

  I mean, you get the picture. This is not your common or garden-variety family where Da or Mum goes to work in an office or some place, and you shop and watch TV in the evenings, and go for barbecues on the weekends. For a start, Mum and Da work weird hours. Mum paints at night. She’s what’s called nocturnal. She sleeps in the daytime and gets up and eats breakfast while the rest of us eat dinner. The best part of her being up all night is that if you wake up with a bad dream or you can’t sleep, you can go to her studio. She wraps you in her shawls and lets you curl up in the corner of her tatty old studio couch while she makes Vegemite toast and pots of herbal tea, and you eventually fall asleep watching her paint, bathed in moonlight.

  Da only works at night when he has a gig. Generally he and his band, Losing the Rope, rehearse four days a week in the afternoons and some nights. He earns a living arranging other people’s music and giving music lessons. The rest of the time he’s either practicing his guitar or composing his own music.

  To say we’re not rich is an understatement. There’s a few good months, a lot of bad months, and the occasional ugly month when we’re not having milk in our tea or butter on our bread and bills with red type and a nasty tone come in the mail because of what Da calls The Gap. That means the difference between when you ask somebody to pay you and when you actually get the money.

  When I was small I thought The Gap was this big crack in the pavement out front of our place, which had appeared when a truck mounted the curb one night. It was wide enough that little kids needed help to step over it and old ladies with canes were always tutting at it. What used to scare me about it was that you couldn’t see how deep it was, no matter how hard you looked. It was too dark, and I was too scared to reach in and see if I could feel the bottom.

  One day the man up the road saw me lying on my belly staring into it and he told me to watch out for the bears. Somehow that gave me this
creepy idea that there was a dark underworld of bears and the crack opened onto it, but it wasn’t wide enough for them to escape, although that’s what they wanted to do more than anything in the world. They thought humans were mutant bears whose fur had fallen out, and they wanted to tear out the throats of all us puny, hairless bears living up here in the sunlight. But they couldn’t find a way to escape. So they would come to the crack and gaze up at us. Whenever I stepped over it, I could feel their eyes glittering with bloodlust and hate. And whenever Da warned us that The Gap was widening, I would have nightmares about the bears, fearing that they had figured out a way to open up the crack enough to escape.

  Of course, I grew out of thinking the bears were down there, but I still get a feeling of unease when Da talks about The Gap. Da says it doesn’t matter about being poor because everyone should live on the edge some of the time; it reminds you you’re alive. One bit of me agrees with him, but another bit of me feels like it would be easier if you didn’t live too close to the edge all of the time.

  We kids go to school like regular kids. The truth is I like school. I’d get bored if I was home all the time just doing anything I wanted, like Jesse.

  Da tutored us all in music, of course. He taught us piano and guitar, but I’m the only one who doesn’t play anything. All that teaching couldn’t seem to take hold in me. It just slipped out as fast as Da fed it in, until he said kindly that maybe I took after Mum. That might be OK if it wasn’t for the fact that most of the others are artistic as well. Mum says it’s because I haven’t developed the right side of my brain yet. Da thinks it’s because I haven’t found my form.

  It was different with the others. Jesse plays blues on his guitar, Mirandah plays saxophone in a jazz group with some kids at school, and Serenity plays cello really well. Or she used to, anyway. Da says it doesn’t matter about me and Mum not being musical because somebody needs to be the audience.

  What I’m trying to say here is that in a family of extraordinary and talented people, I am the odd one out—the chicken in a house of peacocks. The worst of it is that the others really are peacocks. Mum has stunning blue eyes, masses of wavy red hair, and pale, soft skin. Mirandah takes after her, except she’s blond. Da, Serenity, and Jesse have thick, wavy, coal-black hair and blue eyes. Jesse is kind of overweight, but he’s still really nice-looking. Da is so handsome that some of the girls at school make swooning faces when he goes by, and female teachers always talk to him for longer than any other parent at parent-teacher nights. Luke has only been in the world for half a second or so, so we don’t know how he’ll end up looking, but right now he has creamy skin, a fluff of inky curls, and opaque blue eyes. I have this pale brown, straight hair that won’t grow past my shoulders without splitting, and my eyes are gray. Smoky, Da calls them, but that makes them sound a lot more interesting than they really are. I’m kind of skinny and short, too. Compact, Da says, which makes me sound like the economy size. So maybe I’m the half in the Whitestarr family.

  I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I never minded having no talent, I did mind being plain and untalented. But who could I blame? Mum and Da can’t help the way their genes worked together to make me. I guess even genes have their off days.

  * * *

  That was how I thought of us all before the accident. I had everybody all worked out and filed away. Mum was full of impractical romantic visions that made her inattentive to the real world; Jesse was lazy and absentminded; Mirandah was bossy and superior and tactless; Sybl-Serenity was moody and getting moodier. Luke was sweet, but just a baby. And Da? He was kind and generous and easygoing and filled with integrity. And he loved music.

  When I think back, I always come to this thing that happened just before everything changed forever. Our English class went to the office of the Coastal Telegraph, our local news paper, on a field trip that had been arranged by our English teacher, Mrs. Barker.

  First the editor told us what his job was, then he passed us on to a sad-looking man called Eddie, who took us downstairs to look at the old part of the building where they used to set some of the print by hand. Eddie explained that people used to fit every letter of the headlines into a metal box, which was fixed onto rollers and inked; then paper was pressed against it. Sort of like a huge stamp set.

  We saw these enormous wheels of paper in a machine that used to roll them over those inked metal plates. It was exactly like you see in the movies when something happens and they supposedly show the front-page headlines being rolled out. Except it was all frozen forever, like dinosaurs in a museum.

  “That’s not how newspapers get put together now,” Eddie said, sounding wistful. “All the typing and laying out—that’s the way the stories and photographs are organized on a page—that gets done on computers now.”

  Eddie abandoned us in the staff cafeteria, where we were to have lunch. Marilyn Bobbit whispered loudly to Sylvia Yarrow that gray Eddie seemed a bit like one of the components of those old machines. Sylvia giggled and agreed he looked just as obsolete.

  I spent lunchtime pretending to eat and covertly watching Harlen Sanderson flirt with the elderly cafeteria attendant. It was so sweet to see her blush when he gave her a flower he’d plucked from a vase.

  After lunch, a cheerful guy called Clarry showed up and took us to where the advertising was laid out. He told us that newspapers were really only there so people could advertise things they wanted to sell. Journalists were too silly to know any better. He grinned when he said that, to show he was joking, but you could see it was what he really thought.

  He took us to a tiny room where there was a typewriter-like machine called a teleprinter. He said it used to spit out news from agencies all over the world, but now they had the Internet. He left us with a girl called Riley—I don’t know if that was her first or last name. Her job, she told us, was to sift through the mass of stuff on the Internet for backfill. This was information that journalists might use to compile other stories, or for research, or it might be stories that were about our region. She printed these out and filed them, or passed them on to anyone who might be doing a story and could use them. Sometimes journalists would ask her to track down information for them. She showed us the computer room where news was coming in and said that she often knew first when some big news story was breaking. Then we had a look at the photo file before going to the boardroom, where a journalist was going to give us a talk to finish up the day.

  We had been waiting about twenty-five minutes when in walked this guy with dark-brown, restless eyes, short black hair, and a loose way of walking and moving, as if he wasn’t properly screwed together at the joints. He wore a dark gray suit that looked expensive, although he wasn’t all that old. He told us his name was Gary Soloman and that he was an A-grade journalist. Then he launched confidently into this talk about journalism as a career. It sounded like something he had memorized and you got the feeling he was just unwinding a spool. But when he said a journalist couldn’t afford to get emotionally involved, Jezabel Aster broke in to ask him if he’d ever done a story that got to him.

  That seemed to stump him, and we all waited to see what he would say. I thought he was probably just going to jump back into his prepared rave, but he frowned and said in a slower, less confident voice, “It’s funny you should ask. You need to be detached, but I guess every journalist has stories that get past the barrier you try to set up. For me it was something that happened when I was on court rounds the first time. There was a case about a teenager who had murdered his ten-year-old brother. It wasn’t an accident. The older brother had written in his diary that he wanted to murder his brother and described how he would do it, and then he did it. He took the kid to this bit of track, saying they were going to flatten coins on the rails, and when a train came along, he pushed him under.”

  The whole room was so silent that anyone entering might have thought it was empty. I glanced around and saw how stunned people looked. All the sarcasm and laughter had been wiped away.

  “Why did he do it?” Jezabel finally asked.

  Gary Soloman nodded. “That’s what I wanted to know. That’s what the court wanted to know. The guy who did it was eighteen. He didn’t seem that bright. I kept thinking he just didn’t understand that when he pushed his brother under the train he’d stay dead. Maybe he thought his brother would get up like the coyote after the train runs over him in the cartoon. That was the tack the defense took.”

  “But didn’t the guy say why he’d done it? Didn’t someone ask him?” Jezabel demanded.

  “The defense came up with all sorts of reasons. He’d been depressed. His father was out of work. He was in trouble at school. But when they asked him, he only said he’d thought of doing it and then he did it. He got a suspended sentence because the judge decided he wasn’t responsible, that he needed psychiatric treatment. But what got to me was that I didn’t believe this kid was crazy. And if he wasn’t, then why had he done it? I guess that’s why I’m a journalist in the end. Because I want to know the real reason.”

  He looked so intensely at us that it made me uncomfortable. It was like he really expected us to tell him why that guy had murdered his brother. I noticed Harlen Sanderson had this funny look on his face, and I thought he was going to make one of his smart-serious summing-up statements and get us all off the journalist’s hook. But instead, Nathan Wealls, who was sitting next to him, waved his paw in the air and asked whether the journalist wore boxers or briefs. It was the stupidest thing to say, but everyone cracked up, mostly out of relief at having that demanding silence broken.

  Mrs. Barker came in then, looking like she wanted to ask why we were laughing. Gary Soloman went back to lecture mode, saying he had gone to university and had majored in journalism and communications, all the while bombarding the Coastal Telegraph with applications for an internship until they offered him a job.

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