You never saw it, but there was a rabbit on the ceiling.
It had enormous ears, so it could have been a hare, now I think about it. I’m supposed to rein in my obsessive thoughts when they start, so I guess it’s not important which one it was. All I know is that when I’d lie in bed at a certain angle, the cracks in the ceiling at the far end of the ward looked like furry haunches, topped by those long ears. I had to squint, but I could always find him there when I needed him.
I don’t want to tell you how much I miss that ceiling while we’re out here.
We’re on our backs in the grass, far enough from the campfire that the crackling embers won’t wake us. My mattress has been slowly losing air for an hour, and I’m starting to feel the ground reach up for my shoulder blades. I don’t tell you though, don’t say a word. I’ve been enough trouble this trip.
We’ve decided against the tent tonight. We only dragged what we needed from the canoe – packets of rice, your guitar, blankets. Dean brought his banjo from the red canoe and he and Johnno belted out Blood on the Bluegrass while we heated the food; loud, raucous, whiskey blurring the edges of their voices. There’s no-one to hear us out here, after all.
Six hours we rowed today, and our arms feel it. The whiskey has sunk into our limbs and no-one could be bothered carrying the dishes down to the river. Someone’s thrown a blanket over them at the sight of Mojo’s optimistic tail, and slowly the voices are dying out with the fire.
I can tell by your breathing that you’re not asleep. I turn my head to the five canoes lined up on the riverbank, the bright colours glowing in the firelight like slices of a liquorice allsort, side by side.
You always tell me how much you love sleeping under the stars, how free you feel with the inky expanse above you. You smile when you say it, and always reach out to squeeze my hand, my shoulder, stroke my face.
What I don’t tell you, what I can’t tell you, is that without the ceiling of the ward above me, I’m afraid to close my eyes.
We have such a long day ahead of us. I try to count the drinks I’ve had, not wanting the weight of a hangover slowing my oar strokes. Although it’s autumn, the sun still has a bite and sometimes the river becomes so shallow we all have to get out and drag our canoes along the rocks. I think we underestimated how strenuous this would be, but then again, I’m hardly the most resilient of our crew. I imagine the surprised expressions when you announced you wanted me to come, the quick glances and slow nods.
God knows, the invitation threw me.
We were in the visiting room when you asked me. I remember I was watching Miles at the next table, lining up all his cigarettes in a perfect row to the left of him, pausing, then moving them one by one to the right. Back, and forth; again and again. In the five weeks we’d been on the ward together I’d never seen him smoke one. His movements had become strangely hypnotic to me, repetitive and reassuring. Which is why, when you told me, I didn’t quite catch it.
I’m sorry. You want what?
I saw the briefest flicker of frustration cross your face. My medication makes me vague, makes my hands shake and my mouth dry, but I’m used to you pretending not to notice.
The trip next month, babe; the canoe trip. Ten of us, remember, in five canoes? Plus Mojo, of course. Straight down the Macalister River, sleeping on the riverbank, guitars on board.
I didn’t say a word.
It’d be so good for you, babe.
Miles had eight cigarettes on the left of him, eleven on the right. I tried not to flinch when I realised I’d counted them.
I’m not ready, Henry.
But you disagreed. And Dr Ewers, with his Santa Claus beard and nicotine stained fingers, was on your side. I found this out when he brought me the discharge papers himself, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of my bed. When he gave me the speech, he lifted his hand for a patronising pat on my arm. But halfway through the gesture he hesitated, his hand hovering in mid-air. I watched his yellowed forefinger and for one thrilling moment thought I might actually reach out with my sharp little teeth, and bite it.
I think maybe it was the rabbit’s influence, watching from the corner.
My suitcase was at my feet when you picked me up at the hospital entrance. We did the Discharge Dance; I promised it would be the last time, you pretended to believe me, and when we got home we ordered Thai food and made awkward love on the futon, trying to remember the jigsaw puzzle of our bodies fitting into each other.
Our first night out here, we watched the shadows flicker against the tent walls before you pulled me towards you. There was your thigh between mine and my fingers in your mouth and every reason in the world to believe we would be ok. I woke with leaves in my hair and blisters on my palms from the oars, but my spine ever so slightly straighter. The sun on my face felt good that morning. I sat cross legged outside our tent for an hour, basking like a cat until the boys started wading into the river, dragging the canoes behind them.
I prefer to sit in the back. I like being able to slide my oar into the water, and direct where we go. This surprises neither of us. It’s not like I could just jump in, and trust the water to take me where it wants. Sometimes we just cruise, five canoes in a multicoloured line with paddles resting, watching deer peer through the trees as we pass. Occasionally you cut chunks of cheese with your pocket knife as we float, pressing it into Turkish bread and passing it back to me with a wink. And once you sang my favourite Nick Cave song as we drifted, the lyrics floating back to me as I trailed my hand into the water, reaching for the stones at the bottom.
It’s at night that the demons start dancing at the corners of my eyes. I think about that rabbit on the ceiling every time the sun goes down.
Every goddamn time.
Elyss and I cook the beans and hook the bread over the rack to toast. I listen to the guitar with my hand on Mojo’s neck, scratching her fur as I swill from the passed around whiskey bottle. But I know that when I lie down to sleep, only a thin layer of nylon above my face will keep the sky from falling in on me.
And tonight I don’t even have that. The tent is still in the canoe, too cumbersome for our tired arms, and all I can see a huge swathe of black velvet above me, sprinkled with stars. It should be beautiful, it should be glorious, but all it is to me is freedom, and that’s no longer what I know.
I sit up. No twigs crack. I throw the blanket off before I can decide not to, and move into a crouch. I rock there for a moment, watching the moonlit river hum past with its flashes of silver and song. And then my feet are moving.
I walk slowly down to the riverbank. This part of Gippsland has been burnt so ferociously by bushfire that only now is the greenery beginning to poke its way back through. I step carefully around the buds, feeling the dirt slide between my toes. When I can no longer see our campfire, I stop, and pull my T-shirt over my head.
The water is shockingly cold. I whimper, but I duck under anyway. My splashes cover the sound of your footsteps, and it’s only when I’m in the middle of the river that I see you standing there. When I suck in my breath I’m not sure if it’s because of the water, or the look on your face. You leave your clothes next to mine. The hairs on your arms are dark in the moonlight. You swim towards me, and I get to eight by the time I realise I’m counting your strokes.
Your hand slides into my hair at the same time my legs curl around your waist. We don’t speak. You just hold me there, your face pressed into my chest as we float. I try not to think about the stars, about the sky and its freedom above us.
I close my eyes, but I still know it’s there.
Rijn Collins is an Australian writer with a background in linguistics, a future in Iceland, and permanently inky fingers. More of her writing can be found at www.rijncollins.com.