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Published February 2022Become a subscriber
Hiking near the timberline at twelve thousand feet my father mistakes an almost silent stroke for vertigo— immobilisation that arrives like a tsunami, the body withdrawing to its furthest reaches, brain stem stoppered for a paralysing second. He sits winded in a rubble of rose granite staring at the infinite regression of quaking aspen, valley after valley to the horizon, stunned by his own elevation. Then fear, comprehension: he has lost the language for water, aspirin. An icy breeze shearing off snow, heads of spruce and bristlecone stretching all the way down to the switchback roads where motorcycles lean in terminal arcs. At this height everything grows deformed by wind and cold—flag trees with a single comb of greenery down a leeward side, krummholz pines twisted into pretzel bends, scratchings of alpine parsley, dwarf clover. Who knows exactly when it started or was over— a lightning storm in the skull, its barometer registering no drop in pressure—then whole zones denuded like the palms after Castle Bravo— detonation raising storeys of ocean to the sky. I gave myself a fright, he says, and shakes his head— a bull shifting a cloud of horseflies. Around my father tundra grass is blowing grain by stunted grain. This is the vista about which Katharine Lee Bates wrote ‘America the Beautiful’—the only line of which I ever remember is O beautiful for pilgrim feet, which to me means precisely zero. But if I strain I can still see him sitting dumbfounded in that field of feldspar, his beautiful pilgrim feet laced into white Reeboks and gym socks as a sunburst ripples through his brain. My father is calm as a monk whose long meditation produces imperceptible shifts in his physiognomy, and I understand my father went up the mountain for the same reason everyone goes up mountains. He went up the mountain to change.
The transhuman future arrives for my father as a matchbox purring in his chest— battery pack biohacking his brain, titanium ingot shrink-wrapped in skin. A whisp of silver cable running up his spine is visible only in silhouette when he turns his neck— subcutaneous ripple threaded to his cortex. After the surgery his forehead bears a buckled scar— a runnel ringing his crown like the trace of Roman fortifications on a bald hillside, a ghost yarmulke. Underneath, a confetti of microelectrodes receives pulses from his chest, urging his neurons: connect. But the man who always adored machine logic resents being programmed. He blames the box for each misjudged step: his faltering, arrhythmic gait, all signs of rebel code. He only learns later about the risks of malware— his firewall is vulnerable, any minute his microchip could be hacked, he could be made to moonwalk, sent haywire, surveilled. They say the server is secure but there’s no way to be sure. My father’s face unreadable stone as he insists his mind is his and his alone.
Like hummingbirds attending to injections of nectar nurses squeak from room to room in white sneakers. Buzzers zip and sting like electric whipbirds. My mother presses David Attenborough to her ear— his voice eases through the plastic receiver. A caiman floats in the Pantanal’s scum green, a crown of orange butterflies sipping tears from its eye’s skin. Salt crystals sugaring each wingbeat. Her chemotherapy drips. Night cinches its tendrils around blinking fluorescents— light that will not die. My mother drifts in and out of a sleep that never settles, but rises and dips and rises. She’s bone tired. The eye of the caiman opens and closes— slick membrane clinging to never-ending saltlick. It’s unclear if it feels the infinitesimal weight lift when each butterfly takes flight.
Nurses flank my mother like bridesmaids in lavender gowns and gloves. One wheels a lavender trash can beside her bed—coded reliquary for her toxic body. Poison pulses above my mother’s head, a sluggish bladder coffined in a violet sleeve, a diaphanous chrysalis too hazardous to touch. The clipboard where nurses jot vitals, urine and bloods is the colour of the jacaranda tree blossoming outside because it is November, season of trampled purple on the cricket field behind the hospital where children bat in match-day whites— a roasting wind driving ash and burnt grass into their lungs, red leather cracking like dry thunder on willow, the air everywhere glazed with smoke from distant fires making themselves known.
My mother and I eat takeout: crispy basil prawn and red duck curry. Last week in his nursing home, my father told my mother he was taking her to Brazil. He’d been thinking about where to go for a long time, he said, and landed on Brazil. Its borders touch ten countries, he said, which is convenient. How long are we going for? my mother asked. At least a year, he said. Will we see the Amazon? my mother asked. Oh yes. And Sarah? my mother asked. She’ll have to come, my father said. I don’t know if she can, my mother said, she has to work. Her work will understand, my father said. I taste lychee and chilli. My mother sips her wine. We’re going first class, my father said. We’ve been married for fifty years, and you deserve it. Then he burst into tears. My mother spoons curry over coconut rice as she tells me this. The rice is rich and sweet. I just thanked him, she said. I knew he’d forget all about it. But my father didn’t forget. The next day, he said he’d been running the numbers, and he wasn’t sure whether he could afford to go to Brazil first class, but we would definitely go business. And I see it, I see my father at 40,000 feet, I see him craning his neck to look out of the window, I see him flying over Mato Grosso do Sul, I see him flying like a distant god over cerrado savannah and the snaking wetlands of the Pantanal, I see my father touching the corner of his mouth with a linen napkin as the plane begins its descent, its wings flexing, I see the silverwear gleaming in front of him, I see him lifting a cup filled with jaguar’s blood up to the light, how it gleams like wine, I see the raw jaguar’s heart filleted in the finest slivers, carmine red, laid out like a stinking meat flower on the plate in front of him.
All night my father hangs upside down in the hospital basement trapped under the huge pulsing bell of a crystal jellyfish. He is buckled there— snaps of metal crisscross his thorax, a tangle of suspension lines skein around his legs. Ripstop nylon blooms and shrinks above him— canopy of army green, a fever skin. He cannot understand how he landed behind enemy lines in this crawlspace, this jumble of copper pipes and surplus gear. He moves slow as an insect in agar. His eyes are blind and shine with effort. His rig is snagged on some unseen obstacle— a tree, or the intimation of a tree. His fatigues he recognises, but the parachute is his father’s—the one that failed to deploy when his Hawker Hurricane was shot down over France, and there’s a plastic strap noosed around his wrist he can’t undo. He is in for observation, or is it reconnaissance—the mission keeps moving— but if he cranes his neck he can glimpse a keyhole opening in the fabric above his head: a clear pupil, the apex vent, portal to a world he might see through to if only he could reach it, if only he wasn’t plummeting further with every breath.
Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of two poetry volumes, Aria and The Hazards, which received the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2016, and a book of essays on contemporary poetry, Fishing for Lightning: The Spark of Poetry. Her third book of poems, The Jaguar, was published in 2022.Read more