‘Wrap your pa some lunch up, Sharon,’ says Ma.
‘What, one of these bunnocks? Two?’
‘Take him two. And a good fat strip of smoke. And the hard cheese, all that’s left. Here’s his lemon.’ She whacks
the cork into the bottle with the flat of her hand.
I wrap the heavy bottle thickly, so it won’t break if it drops. I put it in the carry-cloth and the bunnocks and other foods on top, in such a way that nothing squashes anything else.
‘Here I go.’
Ma crosses from her sweeping and kisses my right
cheek. ‘Take that for him and this for you.’ She kisses my
left. ‘And tell him about those pigeon; that’ll give him spirit
till this evening.’
‘I will.’ I lift the door in the floor.
I used to need light; I used to be frightened. Not any
more. Now I step down and my heart bumps along as
normal; I close the lid on myself without a flinch.
I start up with ‘The Ballad of Priest and Lamb’. The
stairway is good for singing; it has a peculiar echo. Also, Ma
likes to hear me as I go. ‘It brightens my ears, your singing,’
she says, ‘and it can’t do any harm to those below, can it?’
Down I go. Down and down, down and round, round
and round I go, and all is black around me and the invisible
stone stairs take my feet down. I sing with more passion
the lower I go, and more experimenting, where no one can
hear me. And then there begins to be light, and I sing
quieter; then I’m right down to humming, so as not to draw
attention when I get there.
Out into the smells and the red twilight I go. It’s
mostly the fire-river that stinks, the fumes wafting over
from way off to the right before its flames mingle with
the tears that make it navigable. But the others have
their own smells, too. Styx-water is sharp and bites
inside your nostrils. Lethe-water is sweet as hedge-roses
and makes you feel sleepy.
Down the slope I go to the ferry, across the velvety
hell-moss badged here and there with flat red liverworts.
The dead are lined up in their groups looking dumbly
about; once they’ve had their drink, Pa says, you can push them
around like tired sheep. Separate them out, herd them up as you
desire. Pile them into cairns if you want to! Stack them like
faggots—they’ll stay however you put them. They’ll only mutter
and move their heads side to side like birds.
The first time I saw them, I turned and ran for the stairs.
I was only little then. Pa caught up to me and grabbed me
by the back of my pinafore. ‘What the blazes?’ he said.
‘They’re horrible!’ I covered my face and struggled as
he carried me back.
‘What’s horrible about them? Come along and tell me.’
And he took me right close and made me examine their
hairlessness and look into their empty eyes, and touch
them, even. Their skin was without print or prickle,
slippery as a green river stone. ‘See?’ said Pa. ‘There’s
nothing to them, is there?’
Yellow Cake by Margo Lanagan is out now, published by Random House Children's Books.