By Sutton Strother
The week after I lose the baby, I let Bryan pick out the movies we watch. I no longer trust myself with responsibilities, not even ones so small. Without meaning to, he chooses three Australian films in a row. I like the third one best: Picnic at Hanging Rock. When the film’s Victorian schoolgirls climb to the top of the rock, remove their shoes and stockings, and doze under the midday sun, I feel that same sun singe the apples of my own cheeks. Dazed upon waking, the girls rise and vanish through a recess in the rock face – a gateway to nowhere, or maybe into the simmering air above. Their classmate Edith pleads for them to turn back, shrieks like a mad bird when she realizes they won’t. I want to reach through the screen and slap her. How could anyone be so tedious in the face of such an improbable miracle? How could you not ache to slip away, too?
“It’s definitely a metaphor for something,” Bryan says when the movie’s over, “but what?”
I don’t have an answer, though I feel one brewing in my hollowed-out spaces.
When I was a child, I heard a man on TV call Australia “Oz.” I thought he meant it like it sounded, that the tornado had dumped Dorothy’s house in the southern hemisphere, that a yellow brick road ran through the outback. For all I know, it might be true. I’ve never seen Australia.
I make a habit of staying up too late then have to camp out in the guest room so that, coming to bed, I don’t wake Bryan. I try a dozen insomnia cures, but what finally works is a YouTube channel: Sleep Journeys with Jeremy Turner. Jeremy’s voice is a velvet whisper over chimes and Tibetan singing bowls, the accent unmistakably Australian.
Each journey begins with astral projection. I will my spirit upward on an exhale, shiver at the soft pop of soul departing flesh. Jeremy invites me to gaze down at my empty body on the bed below, but I’m not brave enough for that.
I travel where Jeremy leads, over a sleeping village, through a sea cave, to the outer rim of the galaxy. I’m always asleep before he calls me back. Most of my spirit knows the way home without a guide, but little pieces of me stay gone. I can feel them when I wake, and they’re happy, wherever they are.
I think a lot about Nick Cave, the rock star, arguably Oz’s grandest wizard, though I think it’s been years since he called Australia home. He lost a child, too, a beautiful boy who tumbled from a cliff. Because it feels like commiseration, I blast his music through my shitty laptop speakers until Bryan begs me to stop, and then I switch to headphones and crank up the volume until my ears sting.
On my next sleep journey, I take Nick Cave with me. Jeremy’s voice conjures a billabong for us, and we stand hand in hand at the water’s edge, scrub grass prickling our bare feet. I don’t dare face him full-on, afraid he’ll disappear once I do. From the corner of my eye, I see the shadow of his black hair falling loose around his face and the upward tilt of his broad nose. He sniffles, and I shudder. I don’t want his grief, so much sharper than my own, or the songs he makes about it. I prefer the songs about myth and murder and apocalypse, the snarling ones. I want them to rip through me and stitch me back together into something as lean and vicious as he once was. I can’t hear those songs now, not here, only the birds and his weeping. I let go of his hand, and he floats away over the gum trees, spilling rain from his open palms.
I snap back to my own body and wake soaked in bush-country sweat. I peel off my pajamas, shower, and tiptoe down the hall to my own bedroom. Bryan blinks awake, despite my best efforts.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, but he shakes his head and pulls back the covers. He hates to be touched while he’s trying to sleep, but when I climb in, the arm he wraps around me is so strong I worry I’ll never slip loose of my body again.
For a while longer, I go through life half-stupid. I don’t hear what people say to me, even when I’ve spoken first. I miss my train station on the way to work, again on the way home. I stop paying attention to lights at crosswalks.
When I tell my mother about the miscarriage, she says she’s sorry, but within five minutes she’s talking about the neighbors’ cockatoos, how they scream like babies and keep her awake at night. I tell her about Jeremy and the sleep journeys. She says she’ll look into it.
My dad texts later that day: I’m so sorry this happened, baby girl. You can try again. I send him back a heart emoji, the one that sparkles.
I find myself scribbling the same inane phrase on cocktail napkins, in the margins of work documents, on the back of my hand:
THE ROAD TO OZ IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS
I think about finally getting a passport. Mostly I try not to think of Hanging Rock, of climbing up and away, an ascent that is also an Ascension, the only way to travel when there’s no space left below.
Sutton Strother is a writer and composition instructor living in New York. Her work has appeared or will appear in Longleaf Review, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP,Jellyfish Review, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere.