“STONE FUR SKIN FISH BLOOD” by TRISTAN FOSTER

Something like. Like track ballast. Igneous, dense and heavy. No, weighty. Full. When you were young you had a friend who lived near the freight line. Ballast would appear in his backyard. Once when you visited you put coins on the track, waiting for a train to come by and warp them into smooth, useless flakes. Like the ones he’d brought out in the school playground at lunchtime. While you hid in the bushes by the track you thought of your mother and this waste of money. This literal sheering of cash; it made your palms sweat and your ears drum. Made you want to piss. But the train didn’t come and when your mate suggested following the tracks to the signal hut to throw stones, you were quick to hop up and pocket your coin, a fifty cent piece, now worth more than the five and the oh on its face.

Coin in your pocket, you followed your friend. You kept an eye out for the train, an ear out for its approaching rhythm; dogs barked at you from backyards. Eventually you arrived at an old hut. The door was kicked in and each wall had a scribble of graffiti on it. Every window was already broken but, even so, it was a thing to throw rocks at. The scrub around the signal hut sprouted from small pebbles. Before long, you were scooping them up in handfuls and catapulting them into the air. Of course, soon, your mate threw the coin he was ready to let the train press flat. Threw it at one of the broken windows but it curled sharply and missed the hut altogether, tinkling as it landed on the other side. He turned to you, as if expecting you to do the same with your coin, but you grinned and hurled another handful of pebbles at the hut’s roof.

You. You didn’t even try to throw the track ballast. Not once. The fragile hut would have crumpled under it spectacularly. The ballast would have changed things; it would have been less stone and more projectile. You can almost feel it in your hand, rubbing it with your thumb. Like a petrified heart. Later, maybe years later, you threw a stone at this same friend who led you to the hut. Threw it and it caught him in the chest with a dull thud. Not ballast but threw it and caught him in the ribs. There was no blood but even the sound of it hitting him hurt. He cried. Held the spot where it caught him. Pointed at you, the culprit. Didn’t try to get even or throw a punch or kick out, just pointed before being bundled away. He eyed you warily after that, which is probably what you wanted.

Your brother stands beside you, pulling apart a mandarin. Dropping the skin to the ground and stuffing double or triple portions into his mouth. Bolt action rifle. You repeat this to yourself while holding it, while loading it: bolt action. Three syllables: bolt ac tion. You set yourself and press the butt into the front of your shoulder and grip the gun tight and squint an eye to aim and know the power of Zeus is in your hands. The feeling is primal, honest. You lower the gun, hold it away from you, exhale and smile. Your brother spits out a seed and asks if you’re ready. He squints and looks out. Lifts a hand and points with bandaged fingers, says that’s what you want, them, over there. The feeding kangaroos are aware of you but unafraid. You can see them eating from here, the curious way their jaws move side to side, bovine-like. The way they lope from one tuft of grass to the next. You put the rifle to your shoulder again and squint an eye. You aim at a cluster of adults, watch one stand up to chew. Your friend reminds you to breathe. You inhale, exhale. Crack shot. A strike from the heavens catches the animal in the chest. The others scatter, jolted from their docility, bounding. Bolt ac tion, smells like citrus.

You kneel beside it knees popping and put a hand on its flank. Rub its bristly fur as if it was a pet dog. Female. Still warm. But the blood already drying, kind eyes already clouding over. Its leg quivers, scratches, kicks, a nerve somewhere still firing, telling it to flee. Still broadcasting. You scan for the rest of the troop, but every one of them is gone, as if they never were. What now? You don’t want to leave it out in the open like this, a bag of fur and bones. You did this, the planet under your feet, a cold moon in the morning sky above you.

You take. You take the dying man’s hand in your own and it is soft like a baby’s. Impossibly so, like it’s new. Soft like it’s never been used, which is wrong. Its wrongness so complete you feel it physically, in the gut. You feel like you’re sinking into it, as though it is quicksand. He tells you to grab a chair, says you look well. Then he looks you in the eyes and asks if you’re feeling as good as you look. You sink further. Want to ask what he means but don’t want to know what he means. Yessssssssssssssinking, into all this white — white walls and sheets and clothes. Hand so soft. You quiver, like a kangaroo not long dead. No, you quake. That’s it, perfect — you quake. You understand what it is to quake now, what it is for the earth to quake, for something unseen to open up, the poetry in that. The soft hands, the compliments, the nearness of death: you quake, and decide to sit for him. Sit here in this whiteness. You hate this place, deciding that white is the colour of hate. You. But what about him? Imagine how he feels about it. The depth of these feelings. The deep chasm, so easy to trip and fall into, tunnelled through to his soul.

You stand in the kitchen with a fillet of salmon in each hand. Pink, chilled, perfectly weighted. Made for cleaving with a knife, for cooking, for eating. It feels right. Like the weight of a dying man’s hand. Your heart hard in your chest, knocking like it’s a piece of stone, something like track ballast. Ugly light overhead, a sauce spattered stovetop, a blank wall. A heating pan, the oil beginning to slick, like laboratory mercury. You brim with outrage. You want to throw the salmon fillet at the wall. This thing hauled from the ocean, flapping, suffocating and split into portions with a polished knife. This piece of the sparkling sea. You brim with, you imagine, bile. Your blood is up — is that an expression? Did somebody you used to know, a grandparent, say that? You want to throw the fillet hard at the wall, so that there is a frigid slap. So hard it causes the air around it to harden into a crystal silence, to freeze your blood in your veins, pause your thumping heart. You want to throw something but you have a fillet of cold fish in each hand; you’ve hamstrung yourself. As usual. You’d kick something over if your ugly, bare kitchen had something in it to kick. You again. Instead, you press one of the fillets into the pan. Ssssssssssssssand then the other. You watch the fillets constrict, as if inhaling, as if alive, before relaxing again. You relax a little too; the salmon sizzle drowns out the world, which is good enough.

It takes you a moment, but. You stand on a brick fence to get a better view of the house; it is an old house, dark and empty. You knew that. You get. You get down and look both ways for cars then stagger out across the road. You kick at one of the wooden panels. Kick again, to feel for how tough the panelling is, this second skin; you aren’t going to damage it. Using the light from the street lamps you feel your way around it, drum on it with your fists. There is a makeshift door with a chain and padlock; you tug at it, trying to pull if off, but it doesn’t give and you chuckle into yourself because the only way in is up and over. You find a part of the wall with plenty of light and jump, grabbing onto the top of the wooden panel. Using your feet to help you over and, in a haze of your own beer breath, you heave yourself up, your grip strong, effective, surprising, even to you. But then you feel a bite. Your hand, your finger. Venomous. You let go.

The cut is clean, as if done with a scalpel or the edge of a tuna can. Warm blood dripping off a cold finger tip, under the street light. You think spider bite but it can’t be. You bleed. You wonder how long it will take for all the blood to drain from your body, all six or seven litres, spilled out right here, at the halfway point between the pub and your home. You think of the times you’ve tipped a cup over, of being surprised at just how far and wide the spillage has spread. You remember the. You remember. When you were a kid your father admonished you for putting your drinks on the carpet, next to where you sat in front of the television. No, no — I’m careful, you said. Once you were drinking a bubbly, sweet orange drink and he told you to put the cup somewhere safe and you said you would but didn’t and spilt the drink out. He watched you watching it spill, watched you cleaning it up. He said nothing and the stain remained there for years, as if as punishment, until the place was re-carpeted and you barely lived there anymore. The flavour, the sticky sweetness between your teeth, the nasal tickle of the fizz remains with you till this day, like an aluminum sting.