Marlee Jane Ward
When I tell Ma I’m ready to get married, she picks up one of her clay pots from where it’s drying and throws it against the wall where it breaks into big, clattery pieces.
‘You’re too young,’ she says, picking up the deep orange shards and dropping them into the bin.
‘You got married when you were a year younger than me!’ I say, helping her sweep up the tiny sharp pieces from the floor.
‘Yes, and I regret every second of it. Thankfully, I got the house,’ she says, gesturing all around her.
The house. She and my Da built it with their own two hands. It’s squat and sturdy and I’ve lived here my whole life.
Ma shakes her head. ‘Things were different then. The world was…safer.’
‘How?’ I ask. ‘How was it safer?’
‘I dunno, Rae, it just was.’
Don’t you love adult think? A thing is something just because. I tell her this and she looks fit to throw another pot. I try and smother the tension like she’s the fiery embers of a cookfire at the end of the night.
‘I won’t be alone. I’ll have Bren.’
‘You and Bren are too serious,’ she tells me. ‘You both need to go and fuck around a bit.’
‘I don’t wanna fuck around,’ I say, flopping onto the settee, an old car bench seat in brown leather that Co and I found in the burbs years back. Ma even forgave us for hanging ’round where we shouldn’t have when we dragged it back home. The springs groan their ancient groan and shed another layer of rust onto the floor.
‘’Cause I’ve fucked around enough already!’
‘Fine. Ask the collective, see what they say. After all, they might agree with me.’
‘I will, then,’ I pout at her, then wipe the look off my face, feeling for a moment about as young as she thinks I am. ‘They might agree, they might not.’
Bren’s sweating, still red cheeked and blowing plumes of bluish smoke up over the bed. I’m propped up on one elbow, tracing lines into salty swirls across his chest. He passes me the blunt and I hit it gently, the feeling spinning through me quickly. Bren grows the best weed. His green thumb is one of the reasons I like him so much. I let my hands wander down his damp body. There are a few other reasons I like him too.
‘I told Ma,’ I tell him.
He sits up, dropping the joint onto my blanket and making a finger-sized hole in the cotton.
‘Shit,’ he says, snuffing out the singe. ‘Does she know I’m here?’
‘Of course she does, she’d be able to smell your smoke from her room. She’ll be down here any second, asking all sweet for a pinch.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She threw a pot against the wall and told me to fuck around some more.’
‘That sounds like your Ma.’
‘Right? Like getting married means we can’t still fuck around.’
Bren lays back and kisses me hard on the mouth, ‘And we can fuck around together.’
‘Do you think we can do it?’ I ask.
‘What, fuck around? Of course, we’re both young and fine.’ He grabs my ass and I slap at him, just playful.
‘No! Go into the city. Build the house.’
The collective meets on Tuesdays, so Bren and I hold hands and head over as the sun goes down. Jas opens the door.
‘You two. I was wondering when you’d be in. Hey Kael!’ he says, looking over his shoulder. ‘We’ve got another marriage request, push back the rest of the actions.’ He looks back to us. ‘We like to get this shit out of the way early.’
Bren and I kinda duck our heads a bit because we’re the cause of ‘this shit’, and we follow him inside. Jas’s house is made from a rusting chunk of airplane fuselage, who knows how he got it back here. The chunk of plane makes up the curved outer wall of his living room, and the rest is cobbled together from bits of steel beam, sheets of scavenged plasterboard and roofed with scrounged-up solar-cell windows. You can see the sunset above the house, threaded through with golden wire and circuitry.
Jas never got married – he made this place on his own, for one. Marriage really dropped off for a while, but it’s coming back. Ma says it’s because the best way to get a child to do something is to tell them not to do it. The collective seems to think we’re doing it to rebel, and maybe they’re a little right. Me, I love Bren, but too – I’m itchy to get out of Ma’s house and out from under her nose. I want an adventure. Marriage is just five years, after all.
‘Right, so,’ Elleen says from a chair by the emergency exit door. ‘You two know how it works. You wanna get married, you have to prove it. The final decision rests on how you complete the task.’
Bren and I stand in the corner, feeling small and young and a bit silly, with our hands still clasped, and we nod in sync.
‘Porter and Yal still have the oxen, so your test won’t start ‘til they get back,’ Eddie says. ‘Five days. A week maybe.’
‘Yep,’ Elleen says. ‘It sounds simple. You go to the city, source your materials for the house and bring them back. Then you build. If can still stand each other afterwards, and your house is sound, you can hitch together.’ She pauses to roll her head around, her neck crack-crack-cracking. ‘The doing is the hard part. I hope you’re ready for this.’
‘We are,’ I jump right in and say. ‘We love each other.’
Bren squeezes my hand. ‘Yeah, we do.’ He sounds so sincere and nervous that I want to take his face into my hands and stroke it. Usually Bren is all bravado and swagger. It’s odd to see him unsure of himself.
‘Love is like, the least of it, kiddos,’ Jas says. ‘You got to work together. You have to be able to cope with each other at your worst.’
I hate how the collective makes me feel like a silly little jerk. I know that when we’re back and we create something together, we’ll get more respect. Part of me feels like this is what I’m looking for most of all, and I side-eye Bren and know that he’s seeking this too.
The oxen are beautiful beasts, but so slow. Their hooves clatter against the cracked road, and now and again they stop to chew on the grass growing through the rifts in the concrete. I groan in frustration as they pause again to chew on a thatch of dandelion coming up through the road.
‘Bloody things, come on!’
‘Chill. There’s no hurry. It takes as long as it takes,’ Bren says. ‘Look, it’s coming into view.’ He points into the distance, where the city is just a wink on the horizon.
I cup my hands around my eyes. ‘Wow. You ever been this close before?’
‘No, of course not. From here you can’t even tell that it’s broken down. It looks new.’
The oxen start up again, and the tray rattles along behind them. We get to walking, falling in step.
‘You scared?’ I ask him.
‘No. I’m shit-scared.’
‘Me too,’ I tell him. ‘But I’m excited.’ I am. There’s a feeling in my stomach a bit like fear, but a bit like anticipation too, the two mixing and folding over each other. This is it. This is where I’ll become an adult. I want to stop here, turn the oxen about and get home as quick as I can. But the city pulls at me. I feel it as it grows, ever slow, but there, in the long view.
The ’burbs have been picked over, but we find some choice pieces in the ruins. A steel sink in a charred out shell, a slab of marble cracked in two. A pair of scavengers with wild tattoos all over their bodies and faces help us carry the stone out onto our cart and in return, we cart out some of their just-found plastic piping, the tubes clunking hollow in our arms. We invite them to share our dinner and they join us in a tight little circle around our thermo-chip stove.
‘Issa,’ the tall one says, holding out a fist, and I bump it.
‘Nao,’ says the small one, and they bump us both too. ‘We’re doing our come of age trip.’
‘Rad. We do trips for lots of reasons, but we wanna get married, so we have to build a house together out of stuff we find in the city,’ Bren tells them and they nod, Issa’s tight braids bouncing with the dip of their head. I’m half in the conversation, trying to roll us a joint from Bren’s stash but failing to get it right, until finally he put his hands over mine and takes the stuff. He chucks my rumpled paper away, pulls out a new one, and makes a perfect spliff in a quick motion. He pops it in my mouth, lighting it with a long match without me having to ask.
‘Isn’t it funny how every place has got its own lore, but they all end up with us in the city, pulling it apart?’ I say, smoke spilling from my lips with every word. I pass the joint to Issa.
‘To make something new,’ Nao says, offering up a bottle, and we each take a long chug, and toast to old things and new things. The night ends and the morning begins with Issa and Nao in our bed, giggling and sighing under our lips and hands while the oxen mix and stamp and bray.
The city begins gradually, gnarled buildings getting bigger as we move in. These ones are picked over and bare, so we have to go deeper in. It’s slow going, picking around rusted hulks of cars and trucks. I get frustrated at the pace, kicking the wheels of the wagon as it stalls, jammed against a huge rift in the road.
‘Go on ahead,’ he tells me as I swear and worry my hands.
He’s happier here with the beasts and the wagon. I’m racing around, looking up at the sky through the holes in the massive structures, marvelling at vines and trees that have sprouted in the most precarious of places, on roofs and out windows, and grown huge, their roots tumbling down the side of brick and concrete. Bren is getting on my nerves. ‘My wonder grinds against his restless haste.’ I don’t get the way he can just plod along in lockstep with the oxen, slow gaze wandering around the scenery, and he probably hates the way I dart back and forth, peering in and out of buildings, murmuring to myself.
We’re doing the same thing – seeking – just in different ways.
‘Really? You’ll be okay on your own?’
‘I’ll be fine, just go,’ he says.
Then it’s just me and the quiet, with the hum of insects and trill of birds nesting in the rusted eaves and pipes and I jog from building to building. I’m starting to get it, you know, why they send us out. It’s all well and good to want to be with someone when you’re laying in bed, sweaty and sweet, but what about when things get serious?
Deep in, the shade from the rows of scrapers turning the street cool, I spot a glimmer four stories up that might be solar panel windows sheathing the still-standing scraper.
‘Bren!’ I bellow, and my voice echoes around and around, making me quake with the volume of it. After a few minutes he comes around the corner, and I point up to the windows, thread through with the gold of circuitry.
‘Too high,’ he says.
‘Nah it’s not. We’re not going to get anything closer to the ground, they’re all already gone.’
‘Too high,’ he says again.
‘Well, I’m going up there.’
‘Fine. I’ve found some decent beam, on the ground floor. I need the oxen to help me pull it down.’
‘Is it safe?’
‘Ugh, Bren, be careful.’
‘Yes, Ma,’ he says and leads the beasts and the cart off around the corner.
I look up at the panels again, falter for a minute because they really are high, then I shake off my irritation and head inside the building, searching for the way up.
The window panels are big and my arms are only just wide enough to hold them. I’m struggling with my second one, trying real careful not to damage the wiring or drop the bloody thing off the side, when the rumble starts. It’s a deep, all consuming sound that sets off something primal in my guts, a fear that rumbles and echoes like the sound.
Then comes the dust, rising in a great cloud, billowing around the blocky structures and filling the street with grey. The window panel slips from my hands and falls into the cloud, the shatter getting lost in the thunder pealing off the scrapers. Dust envelopes me in a cough-spluttering pall that stings my eyes and grates my throat raw.
I race down the stairs where the thunder still reverbs, coming out into the street swirling with debris and I don’t know which way to turn because the rumble comes from all sides, so I just run blindly, screaming, ‘Bren!’ into the brown, all panic and jolty fear. I run headlong into an ox, who’s solid softness and stamping wail bring me back to myself. I can see now, sort of, the dust clearing just so slightly. The ox stands alone, and I cling to its sides, my eyes streaming, blinking knives.
‘Bren…’ I moan, feeling the ox breathe hard against me, animal fear betraying the whites of its eyes. We cling together, me and the beast, keening into the cloud-scarred sky.
I think this is where Bren was, though it’s less a building now, and more a hill of rubble and twisted rebar. I approach the fall of concrete like it’s about to crumble again and engulf me.
‘Bren?!’ I call, and there’s nothing, just the silence of the city and soft call of birds as they tell each other it’s safe to come back out. I don’t know where to start. I look to my hands, ghostly sepia, caked with dust, and they are so small next to the chunks of rubble.
All I can do is begin though, so I call, ‘Bren, Bren?’ with my throat already dust-raw, moving the hunks of rubble I can manage, uncovering little caverns that give me hope that Bren could be trapped in one, alive. Every time I move a piece I listen, hoping to hear the soft call of his voice, that voice I’d know anywhere, the voice that used to tease me for my impatience, and whisper secrets as we lay in bed in the darkest dark of night.
I search for him for days, and as every afternoon slips away to night my heart sinks like the sun behind the scrapers, making cold shadows of the crumbly streets. The wind picks up now and again, coming down the valleys made by the tall buildings, winnowing debris. Every chunk of concrete is a memory of him.
This one, as big as my head and ten times as heavy: the first time we met, at the littlies school underneath the camphor laurel tree, when old Bello was teaching us to add and subtract. He pulled my hair and I kicked him in the shins and then we shared our lunch and were best friends.
That one, a jag of rebar sticking out: when I cut his long hair with an old, rusty pair of scissors and I got so scared of what his Ma might say that I hid all the hair underneath my house like that might erase the whole thing.
A handful of cement pebbles: the first time he kissed me and the way his lips felt crackly and hot against mine. How we showed half the boys and girls in the village how to do it with their very enthusiastic consent, and my Ma found out and gave me a hiding, but that didn’t stop us.
I imagine Ma at home, picking at her rough hands like she does when she’s got something on her mind, wondering where we’re at. Bren’s Da, gruff and quiet, and then I cry some more because I don’t know how I’m going to tell him. He lost Bren’s Ma to cancer a few years back, there was nothing the doc in town could do once her belly got big like she was growing a kid when all she was growing was death. Now he’ll have no one and when I think of that I can’t stop crying, eyes raw and stinging from the salt tears, and the dust I kick up, still looking, pointless.
I don’t find him. Of course I don’t, but I had to try, had to do my time in the rubble. On the fifth day I pick the wildflowers that grow through cracks and crevices in the road, and I drop them around his massive, scattered concrete gravestone. I tell him secrets he already knew, whisper goodbyes to him wherever he is.
Then I get back to work.
There’s a shout as I lead the cart into town.
‘Hey, Rae!’ Emma the forger shouts. ‘We thought you’d been eaten by a tumbledown!’ She grins a big grin as she comes towards the loaded cart, but it drops like a leaf when she sees I’m alone.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ Ma says, her eyes following me as I go back and forth from the cart, my arms loaded. ‘Bren just died. You should rest.’
‘I wanna,’ I tell her. I struggle with a solar pane as big as my armspan and she just watches me as I carry it all awkward and set it amongst the rest.
‘You need to rest. You need time to grieve.’
‘I am grieving. This is how I grieve.’
‘By working yourself to death so you can join him in the ground?’
‘Don’t be so dramatic,’ I tell her.
My lot is on the far south edge of the village, right by the stream and I think they gave me the prime spot because they felt sorry for me. The collective all wrung their hands and told me to go home to Ma, but I said no, I was still building the house.
‘Bren would want this,’ I say, then I drop a pane on my foot and scream in pain and frustration, and Ma gets up from where she’s sitting under the fig tree and comes to help me.
‘I think Bren would want you to eat something. To get a good night’s sleep.’
‘Don’t talk about him like that! You don’t know what Bren would want!’ I rage while I carry the panel, refusing to let her take a side and carry it with me. I want to throw it at her and run away. Instead I tell her, ‘I knew him best.’
‘You did,’ she says, looking sad.
‘I knew him best,’ I say again, soft, and I heave the last panel from the cart, carrying it quickly just to show her I can.
Bren was the builder. He knew how to measure precise and cut right the first time. I get different numbers every time I try, hit my thumb with the hammer, put the screws in all askew. When I almost lose a finger to the saw, Jas comes by, bringing his kit and sitting down by the skeleton of my house. He washes off the cut with salt water and shakes his head over it.
‘It’s going to need three stitches. Maybe four.’
I groan in frustration and at the thought of future pain and because this will set me far behind where I want to be.
‘You’ve got to stop,’ he says. ‘Or you’ve got to let someone help you.’
‘You built your house by yourself,’ I tell him as he threads the needle.
‘That’s because I’m a stubborn fuck and an idiot.’
‘I’m a stubborn fuck and an idiot,’ I snap back.
‘True, but I also knew what I was doing.’
‘Oh, yeah? Because you’re a man?’ I resent that Bren was good at this stuff and I’m not. It just feels so gendered and gross. I can’t understand why my sheer force of will isn’t helping.
‘No, because I’d built houses before.’ Jas dumps more salt water onto my hand to clear off the blood, then takes my finger, carefully holds the parted skin together and dips the needle into my flesh.
I want to build the house myself, to show that I can.
I want it to stand proud like a monument to Bren, but as a testament to my strength, too. Now I’m out a hand until these fucking stitches heal and I almost scream with frustration, but I don’t want Jas to think he’s hurting me. He is, though. My finger hurts. My back hurts. Everything hurts.
Mostly my heart hurts.
I sleep in the skeleton of my house because it’s still warm enough to sleep outside, and the house is so unfinished it can still be considered outside. My hand throbs, keeping me awake. In the deep hours of the night I wait for sleep but when it doesn’t come I go through my things until I find the little plastic pouch with a few joints Bren rolled for me tucked inside. I remember him making them, how fast and tricky his hands were, and I laugh out loud, because his hands were fast and tricky in lots of ways. I think about that night, how I was trying and failing to roll them myself, getting frustrated. I could never make them right – not tight enough to burn even, or loose enough to keep the air flowing.
‘Let me,’ Bren said.
‘I can do it!’ I snapped back, even though I knew I couldn’t. I just got madder, and the paper started to crumple so I put the stuff down with a groan and pushed the tray toward Bren.
‘Fine!’ I said. ‘You do it.’
‘There’s no shame in asking for help, you know,’ he said, rolling my mangled remnants into a perfect j in one smooth motion. ‘Here, I can teach you.’ He took another slip of paper and showed me how, going through the motions slowly, and by the end I rolled one that wasn’t half bad.
I puff on one of his perfect joints, looking up through the smoke and the bones of what should have been our house, into the star-smeared sky. I remember the way he licked the paper, gliding it across his tongue in a quick little motion just before he rolled it up, and as I take another draw I think about how these might be the last little pieces of him I have left.
In the morning I go to Jas’s place. He answers the door with rumpled hair and sleep-squinting eyes.
‘Can you teach me how to make the frame? Like properly, so it won’t fall down?’ I ask, my stubbornness and the anger that was really grief all gone.
‘Now?’ He says, rubbing his eyes.
‘Not now! Later. Whenever! I don’t want you to do it for me, I want you to teach me how.’ I say. ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I reckon Bren would have wanted me to ask for help.’
‘I think so too,’ Jas says and I can tell he wants to say he’s proud of me, but he doesn’t, just touches me on the shoulder. ‘I’ll come by after lunch.’
I go by Billie’s place and ask her if she can teach me to weld. I trip up the steps to Zach’s and see if he can show me the best way to rig the plumbing. When I swing by Ella’s and ask if she can show me how to get the solar panels hooked up and buzzing she gives me a hug and says yes right away.
We live here together and helping each other is how we survive. It’s what we’re meant to do.
Ma comes by as the sun is throwing out reds and pinks and purples at the end of the day. I’m filthy and exhausted, but I’ve got half the frame redone and it’s sturdy as.
‘It looks good,’ she says, sitting by me. We watch the sun dip to the horizon together in silence. In the distance I see Shy and Coda coming back into town from their trip, oxen pulling the cart packed high with struts and steel and solar panels.
‘I liked Bren a lot,’ she finally says. ‘I didn’t mean to get so mad when you told me you wanted to marry him. I just didn’t want to let you go.’
‘I know you liked him,’ I tell her. Things go quiet for a bit and the vibe is so serious that I poke her in the ribs to break the heavy moment. ‘You liked his weed too.’
‘Do you have any left?’ she asks, laughing and I laugh too, chucking her the pouch. She takes a twig and pokes it into my fire to let it catch, then lights one of the joints, takes a long drag and passes it to me.
‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ she says, smoke puffing out as she says the words. She hands me one of her clay pots.
‘You’re not going to throw it at me?’ I ask.
‘No!’ she says, all sheepish. ‘Not this time. It’s a housewarming gift.’
Ma’s makes the pots on a wheel in her shed, and everyone in town has a least two. I’ve always hated the stink of the clay and refused to try it, just to be contrary. Just ‘cause she’s my Ma.
‘I’ll probably need more of these,’ I tell her. ‘I don’t know how to make them, though. Will you show me?’ ∎
Marlee Jane Ward is a writer living on Wurundjeri Land in Melbourne, Australia. She studied creative writing at the University of Wollongong and is an alum of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She is the author of the award-winning Orphancorp Series. Her short fiction is published in Aurealis, Apex, Interfictions, Terraform and others. You can find her non-fiction in Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Scum Mag and more. ‘Building’ is her Interzone debut.
Sumit Roy, a.k.a scorpy, is a self-taught freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and digital artist from Basirhat, India. Sumit work has also appeared in Weird Horror Magazine and other publications around the world. See more of Sumit’s work at his website.
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